Williamsburg, James City County offices asked for FOIA documents

abogues@vagazette.com

When asked to produce public records that, by law, are open for inspection by the public, government offices in Williamsburg and James City County had mixed results.

As part of a statewide project examining the Freedom of Information Act, The Virginia Gazette sent a reporter to local government offices seeking access to public records and documents.

The reporter, who did not identify herself as a member of the press, went to offices in James City County and Williamsburg as part of the project, which involved 13 newspapers across the Commonwealth.

Across the state, more than half of the more than three dozen police or sheriff's departments included in the test refused to release any information about felony incidents, even though the act says those are "records required to be released."

Nearly 25 percent of local government and school board offices refused to release information about the salaries and allowances of city managers, county administrators and high school principals – in Radford, school officials took five days and charged $12 to look up and provide the salary of the city's one high school principal.

Virginia's law provides more than 170 excuses to decline to release a record or let people listen to their discussions.

But it also says that some records must be released, and that those excuses for withholding access are not mandatory except in the case of protecting confidential informants in criminal matters.

Members of most public agencies in the Williamsburg and James City County area were largely cooperative, with the exception of the Williamsburg-James City County School system, where a public information officer repeatedly asked for information about the reporter's background before providing information.

W-JCC Schools

When the Gazette reporter arrived at the administration building for W-JCC schools, she requested salary information for school division principals, which is part of the public records state law says must be available to the public.

An employee at the front desk at the central offices at James Blair asked if she was affiliated with anyone, and forwarded her information on to the school division's communication office.

The reporter received a phone call from school division spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith, who asked for her identity and whether or not she worked for the Virginia Gazette.

FOIA does not require citizens to provide any information about their professional background in order to receive documents covered under the law.

Overkamp-Smith then said the reporter needed to email her a FOIA request, which is also not required under the law in order to receive the information, which can be obtained by a verbal request.

Overkamp-Smith emailed the requested information three business days later to the reporter after a written request was submitted for the information.

Williamsburg Police Department

The reporter asked the Williamsburg Police Department for any overnight incident reports on the day she visited. She was promptly allowed to view the incident reports, after being asked if she was looking for any specific report.

Williamsburg City Manager's office

At the city manager's office in Williamsburg the reporter asked to view the mayor's and the city manager's statement of economic interest. She was told the clerk who oversaw the statements was not in the office at the time, but the employee took down her contract information and later the same day she received an email with all of the requested information.

James City County

The reporter asked for the county administrator's salary and allowances at the financial management services office. Tara Woodruff, director of budget and accounting, asked if she was a member of the press, to which the reporter responded simply she was just hoping to see the document with the salary information.

Woodruff said she would pass her information along to county finance director Sue Mellen, because she did not know if a written FOIA request was necessary. She then received a phone call from Woodruff, who said she needed to submit a written FOIA request.

A few hours later, the reporter received a phone call from a James City County Communications officer, who said a formal written FOIA request was not necessary, and the reporter promptly received the documents via email.

Staff Writer Dave Ress contributed to this report. Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.

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