WE humans are observant creatures. We notice everything, even when we don’t notice that we’re noticing. We especially notice when things are different.
How often have you seen something in your community that’s part of your regular routine, and noticed that it’s just not quite the same as it used to be? And haven’t you often asked yourself, “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”
If that’s happened to you, you should meet Lee Albright and his wife, Paulette, who retired to Nelson County. A dozen years ago, Lee and Paulette liked to visit their local fish hatchery, which was run by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). When the fish hatchery was suddenly closed to tourists, Lee and Paulette asked themselves, “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”
Lee wasn’t content to let that question be merely rhetorical. Instead, he set out to get answers.
He turned to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that can be used by any Virginia citizen to gain access to the records our local and state governments use, maintain, generate and possess in the course of carrying out the work of the people.
He asked DGIF for records about how they were spending money, not just on the local fish hatchery, but in general. That first batch of records didn’t answer the Albrights’ “why is that?” question; instead, it raised more questions about some of the charges they were seeing on agency credit card records.
So they filed another FOIA request. And another. And another.
The road wasn’t always smooth. Sometimes the records were withheld; sometimes there were steep charges for them. Lee went to court when that happened, and he won. He even learned from an anonymous source at DGIF that the irregularities Lee had already uncovered were only the tip of the iceberg.
At the same time Lee started to contact the media about what he was uncovering, the same source that helped him earlier eventually called the state’s fraud, waste and abuse hotline. That prompted an investigation, an audit, indictments and the removal of several members of the DGIF board.
All because the Albrights asked why, and because they used FOIA to find answers.
They aren’t alone, though. There are many, many citizen heroes among us who use FOIA to understand why. Citizens usually start out wanting answers to something personal to them, but they often find themselves tracking down information that impacts all citizens.
Consider the woman in Chesterfield County who used FOIA to discover that the county administrator spent $18,000 to charter a flight back to Virginia from Kansas when he learned a local elected official had been arrested.
Consider the York County man who has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the years making FOIA requests as part of his regular routine. He’s usually asking for email and correspondence, just to see what everyone’s up to, though sometimes he’s looking for something in particular.
Consider the Fairfax County woman who filed dozens of FOIA requests with the school district to learn about band and school booster clubs. What she found led to a change in the way the clubs reported their income and expenditures to the school system.
Consider the Loudoun County man who has mobilized the families of special needs students by teaching them how to access their own child’s records and general school records through FOIA.
And there’s the business owner who wondered why the Newport News-Williamsburg Airport canceled the lease on his airport restaurant and so filed a FOIA request. That was the start of a process that eventually revealed the airport’s governing body had improperly used state transportation funds to guarantee a loan taken out by a struggling airline the airport was trying to secure.
None of these hometown heroes were career FOIA nerds like I am. They were often starting blind. Many of them came to our organization for help understanding the ins and outs of the lengthy, arcane, but crucially important law: What does the request have to say? How long does the government have to respond? How much can I be charged for a request? Is this an applicable exemption?
Many credit our organization for working and advocating for open government in Virginia. But as I see every day—in the calls, emails and even Tweets I receive—it is the citizens of this state that deserve the kudos and credit. They are the ones using the tools given to them by law to hold their governments accountable. They are the real heroes.
And it all starts by asking, “Hmm. I wonder why that is?”
Megan Rhyne is the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, which has designated the week of March 10-16 as “Sunshine Week” in Virginia.