The City of Richmond is not complying with government transparency laws

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Posted at 5:52 PM, Feb 27, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-27 18:03:17-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The City of Richmond is not complying with government transparency laws and oftentimes not meeting legal deadlines to provide information to members of the public.

It's an area within City Hall that officials have acknowledged needs improvement.

Understanding FOIA

If you want to know something about how the government operates, you have that right under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, commonly referred to as FOIA. It allows anyone the opportunity to access public records that the government possesses, with some exceptions.

FOIA states, "The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times, the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of the government."

Under the law, governments are required to meet certain expectations on how they handle requests for information.

For example, they typically have five business days to respond to a FOIA request and also have the option to invoke seven extra days if they need more time to fulfill a request.

But the City of Richmond is not meeting those deadlines and sometimes ignoring requests entirely.

FOIA expert Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the law is "pretty plain" when it comes to deadlines, adding governments can be sued for not meeting them.

"If they fail to respond within those first five days, or if they get to the end of that extension period and they still haven't responded, technically that is a violation of FOIA," Rhyne said.

Richmond's Transparency Problem

CBS 6 submitted a FOIA request for internal communications about the FOIA office in January 2024, when the city received a lot of requests regarding the finance department amid the meals tax fallout.

CBS 6 submitted this request on January 22, 2024. The city's acting FOIA officer and public relations director Petula Burks did not invoke an extension and did not provide responsive records until February 7, seven days past the legal deadline.

The provided emails revealed a pattern of City Hall leaders being unresponsive to the city's former FOIA officer Connie Clay, who was asking for necessary information from them in order to fulfill requests.

On January 2, Clay told Finance Director Sheila White about "overdue FOIAs" and asked who she should refer them to.

Between January 4 and January 8, White and Burks told Clay to deny a news reporter's request for certain taxpayer applications for waivers of penalty and interests submitted to the Finance Department. The reporter asked follow-up questions about why the city was not supplying the records, and Burks told Clay she should not "still be going back and forth" with the reporter.

Clay offered to retrieve and redact those requested applications herself, but Burks responded, "This is a no."

On January 8, Burks sent an email to Clay raising concerns about how she responded to FOIA requests. Burks told Clay it was "inappropriate" of her to forward or copy-and-paste "internal or fact-finding emails" when responding to requestors.

"We cannot keep approaching each FOIA request from an adversarial standpoint when working with our partners across our organization," Burks said in that email.

On January 10, CBS 6 reporter Tyler Layne submitted a request for meals tax-related emails from the finance department. Clay said she could "easily" search, review, and redact the records herself by the deadline, but Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of Finance Sabrina Joy-Hogg said IT would pull the records and the legal team would redact them.

Then, Burks said that Sheila White needed to retrieve and redact the records since they contained taxpayer information.

On January 17, Clay fired back, "I will not misstate facts for you, Sheila White, the City of Richmond, or anyone else. If your excuse for being late on this FOIA request is that only Sheila White can review and redact the records, you need to call or email Tyler Layne... As you know, I have decades of experience handling personally identifiable information and other sensitive data."

As of February 27, the city still has not responded to CBS 6's FOIA request on this matter.

Rhyne reviewed the exchanges and said that there is no statutory requirement governing who has to respond to specific requests. She said the tax code does prohibit the release of taxpayer information, which can carry criminal consequences; however, the code only speaks to disclosure of records, not accessing records.

But Burks said the city has set internal best practices as to who can access taxpayer records in an effort to protect privacy.

“What this exchange shows me is how that process can get gummed up by bureaucracy. When the FOIA officers have to ask multiple people to participate and weigh in, and they're dependent on them and they don't have the authority to answer questions or fulfill requests or what have you, it really hamstrings them," Rhyne said about the internal communications.

On January 19, Clay told Burks, "I have several overdue FOIA requests for the Finance Department. Sheila and Sabrina have not responded to any emails in over a week."

Later that day, Clay would no longer have a job with the city. Burks said she could not disclose the reason for Clay's separation, citing personnel privacy.

A little more than a week later, multiple Richmond City leaders were sued by political activist Paul Goldman and transparency activist Joshua Stanfield for allegedly violating FOIA by failing to respond to a request for finance records. The lawsuit is still playing out in court.

CBS 6 scheduled interviews with Petula Burks, who oversees the FOIA office, three different times for this story. But Burks cancelled every interview and sent a written statement after the third cancellation.

"The City of Richmond is committed to continuously improving its processes, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an area where we are focusing our efforts to improve. The City is in the process of transitioning from a decentralized FOIA system to a centralized one. Staffing has been an issue as we try to centralize. We recognize that one size does not fit all, and we are working to find the right personnel for the City's FOIA centralization process. Change and transition are never easy, but once we have adequate staffing, we believe our FOIA processing will improve, and turnaround times will meet expectations," Burks said.

The statement continued, "Our goal is to be transparent and timely in our responses to FOIA requests while ensuring that essential tasks in the city are completed. As we work through this period of change, we ask for the public’s patience, knowing that it takes time and effort to achieve our desired outcome."

Rhyne would argue that fulfilling FOIA requests is also an "essential task" in the city.

“There is a law on the books that says citizens, everyone has a right to know what their government is doing in their name," Rhyne said. “So when this law is repeatedly ignored or repeatedly violated or repeatedly dismissed as being a cumbersome and just in the way, an obstacle to other things, that's telling the public that they are an impediment.”

CBS 6 is also aware of an email that should have been responsive to our request for emails in which Clay warned Burks that the city could face a lawsuit for not complying with FOIA.

Burks has acknowledged the existence of the email and has said she would provide the email to CBS 6.

But as of February 27, Burks has still not provided the email.

You can view the complete email files provided by the city here.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email to send a tip.

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