RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts said CBS 6's request for information pertaining to Monument Avenue would cost more than $28,000 to fulfill.
CBS 6 reported in April the VMFA was removed from the initiative to "reimagine Monument Avenue" where Confederate statues were taken down. The change came in December after former Governor Ralph Northam transferred ownership of the Lee Circle from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the City of Richmond.
Oversight of the project shifted into the hands of Richmond leaders. However, city residents complained the update was never widely communicated to the public even after the VMFA spent $100,000 taxpayer dollars — out of $1 million total allocated in the state budget — to kickstart transformation efforts.
On April 28, CBS 6 submitted a request for records under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain emails containing "Monument Avenue" from 12 VMFA leaders over a five-month period.
On May 4, a VMFA FOIA Officer responded that the expenses to fulfill this request would total about $1,100.
CBS 6 revised the request on May 5 to only include emails sent from VMFA Director, Alex Nyerges, between 10/1/21 and 5/5/22 containing the words "Monument Avenue," "Monument Ave" and "Reimagine Monument Avenue."
Additionally, CBS 6 asked for correspondence between the VMFA and the governor's administration between 11/1/21 and 1/15/22.
The same day, the VMFA told CBS 6 that the request will exceed $200, and it would need 12 business days to determine how many documents are involved and an estimated cost.
On May 23, VMFA's FOIA Officer said the updated request would cost CBS 6 approximately $28,054.
"This estimate is based on reviewing the email of all 346 VMFA employees and the associated software cost, and a review of over 200 documents that may potentially be found within the parameters of your request," the FOIA Officer said. "If you wish to proceed with the request, please send a check for $28,054, payable to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts."
CBS 6 replied asking the VMFA to only include correspondence from Nyerges rather than all employees. CBS 6 also requested a phone call conversation to discuss the most efficient way to request desired records.
The following day, CBS 6 called VMFA asking again for a phone call conversation. The FOIA officer later sent an email that read, "Thank you for your email and phone call to the museum," and provided a breakdown of the cost estimate.
According to the hours and expenses estimated to fulfill the request, it appeared the museum charged $77 per hour to download, review, print and send emails.
The FOIA Officer said the request was broad and would produce "voluminous results." The officer also explained how the museum approached the request and suggested a narrower request to "specify the sender, recipient, and the date range in addition to the search of keywords."
Megan Rhyne, Executive Director of Virginia Coalition for Open Government, called the VMFA's cost estimate jumping from more than $200 to $28,000 "pretty startling," and said the whole exchange needed a conversation by phone or in-person.
"FOIA is interesting in that it has several provisions that anticipate requesters and government working together," Rhyne said.
Rhyne explained that FOIA law expects a back-and-forth between both parties to reach an agreement in order to get information.
"Not just with your request, but with any request, anytime there's any kind of possible miscommunication, when anything is unclear, when it's possible that you're going to come up with a fee estimate that the ordinary person is not going to be able to afford, it just seems like that's the perfect time for a phone call between the requester and the government," Rhyne said.
Rhyne said requesters who receive a high-cost estimate should first reevaluate their requests and then follow up with questions about how many documents are involved, the hourly rate being charged and how many hours total it'll take to fulfill.
Without speculating intent and speaking generally, Rhyne said significantly high estimated expenses can generate suspicion from the public and potentially deter requesters from moving forward with requests.
"Even when there's nothing going on, they've created an atmosphere that makes people just think that there's something going on," Rhyne said.
CBS 6 also reached out to Virginia's FOIA Council which was created to help settle disputes over FOIA-related issues, for guidance.
"We generally recommend direct communication between those involved in situations like this one, so speaking with their FOIA officer by phone or in person is the right course of action," said Alan Gernhardt, Executive Director of Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
VMFA's FOIA Officer has not returned CBS 6's calls or revealed their identity.
Rhyne emphasized why FOIA was established in the first place.
"This is a citizen's law that gives citizens access to records that their government is making, using, and maintaining," Rhyne said. "We have already bought and paid for those records. They are doing this work in our name, and FOIA guarantees our right to get these items. Obstacles that are put in the way only serve to frustrate citizens."
CBS 6 has sent an updated request to the VMFA and will update this story when the request is fulfilled.
"We would like to assist you," the VMFA FOIA Officer wrote in an email.