VMFA would charge CBS 6 $28,000 for public info. Lawmaker calls high fees 'deterrent' and 'undemocratic.'

VMFA would charge CBS 6 $28,000 for public info. Lawmaker calls high fees 'deterrent' and 'undemocratic.'
Posted at 6:00 PM, May 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-26 20:16:07-04

RICHMOND, Va -- After the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts told CBS 6 it would charge more than $28,000 to fulfill a request for information, a Virginia lawmaker spoke out against significantly high fees charged by government agencies to provide public records to citizens.

The CBS 6 Problem Solvers have been questioning the VMFA for nearly a month about what happened to the Reimagine Monument Avenue project. The museum said it spent $100,000 taxpayer dollars on paying staff and outreach initiatives to begin a plan to transform historic sites where Confederate statues were removed.

However, Governor Northam's administration pulled VMFA from the project in December when he transferred ownership of the Lee Circle from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the City of Richmond just before Governor Youngkin took office. The city then took control of the project.

Community members expressed frustration that the shift in leadership wasn't communicated to the public after CBS 6 reported the update in April.

CBS 6 sent a request for records under the Freedom of Information Act to the VMFA. It asked for emails from Director, Alex Nyerges, pertaining to the Reimagine Monument Avenue project over an 8-month period and email correspondence between VMFA and Governor Northam's administration over a 3-month period.

The VMFA responded in 12 business days that it would cost CBS 6 $28,054 to fulfill the request. The museum's FOIA Officer said the request was broad and interpreted as CBS 6 wanting emails from all 346 VMFA employees without asking for clarification.

“The Freedom of Information Act is the single most important tool we have for government accountability outside of your ability to vote," said Democratic State Delegate, Danica Roem.

Roem, a former journalist, said the cost estimate from VMFA highlighted a larger issue among government bodies across Virginia.

FOIA is a law that guarantees citizens access to information controlled by government agencies, but requests for information can often come at a price.

“They're supposed to only be charging fees to cover costs. Instead, what actually happens is they use FOIA fees as a deterrent to try to get people to not file FOIA requests in the first place," Roem said. "$28,000 FOIA fees? You know that's being done as a deterrent."

To combat high FOIA fees, Roem introduced legislation during this year's General Assembly session that would make the first two hours of fulfilling a request free of charge for the requester. For any work after two hours, the bill would cap the hourly rate at $33 with some exceptions. The measures would apply to four requests submitted by a citizen per month.

"I get some people do file abusive FOIA requests. Some people don't have good faith when they're doing it. Some are corporations who are simply trying to make money off of this. This is why we came to the table to negotiate," Roem explained.

Roem said even though the legislation earned support from a majority of members on Virginia's FOIA Council, it was rejected by lawmakers during session.

"I am pleading with the public as a reporter-turned-legislator to base your votes on people who actually give a damn about the Freedom of Information Act," Roem said. “When it comes to government transparency, we’re really bad at it.”

Meanwhile, a law introduced by Republican State Delegate, Nick Freitas, passed and will take effect July 1. It requires government bodies to make all reasonable efforts to provide FOIA requesters the lowest cost possible.

The VMFA provided the following breakdown for it's $28,000 expenses estimate:

  • Information Technology Specialist II: $30.29/ 173 hours
  • Information Technology Manager I: $68.75/ 8 hours
  • General Administration Support II: $30.79/ 180 hours
  • Deputy Director: $151.44/ 8 hours
  • Assistant Attorney General: $141.39/ 8 hours

CBS 6 has asked multiple times for a phone call conversation with the VMFA, per recommendation from Virginia's FOIA Council and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, to help both parties involved navigate the FOIA process.

CBS 6 has still not received a call.

When asked for guidance about VMFA's responsibility to communicate with the requester, Executive Director of Virginia's FOIA Council, Alen Gernhardt, said, "The policy statement of FOIA at subsection B of § 2.2-3700 provides, among other things, that 'All public bodies and their officers and employees shall make reasonable efforts to reach an agreement with a requester concerning the production of the records requested.'"

VMFA's FOIA Officer has not identified themselves and has only signed emails as "VMFA FOIA Officer."

CBS 6 has asked multiple times for the officer's identity and has not yet received an answer. Additionally, the name is not listed on VMFA's website under its FOIA page.

"Regarding names, for state level public bodies, pursuant to subsection B of § 2.2-3704.2, 'the name and contact information of the public body's FOIA officer to whom members of the public may direct requests for public records and who will oversee the public body's compliance with the provisions of this chapter shall be made available to the public upon request and be posted on the respective public body's official public government website at the time of designation and maintained thereafter on such website for the duration of the designation,'" Gernhardt said.

Roem described FOIA fees as a "double tax" and "undemocratic."

"The system is not designed to protect the public interest. The system is designed to take care of legislators and agency heads and other people who don't want to deal with the inconvenience of being burdened by a request for public information," she said. “I don’t care what your politics are — you should care about public records being accessible to the public.”

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