In 2018, Fairfax County received 8,469 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests — an average of 34 requests per working day. And the volume and complexity of FOIA requests that the county receives continue to increase.
To address the growing demand, the county established a central FOIA office and adopted a new FOIA policy that aims to balance our commitment to transparency and openness, while ensuring the protection of the county’s privacy and security interests.
In short, a FOIA request is a request for public records, which are defined as any record containing information relating to the conduct of government business that is prepared, owned, used or retained by a public body. This includes, but is not limited to, emails, handwritten notes, reports, drafts, letters, spreadsheets, contracts, calendars, audio files, photographs and videos. It is the subject matter of the record, not its form, that determines whether the record is a public record.
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) is the state law governing access by residents of Virginia and representatives of the media to public records and to meetings of public bodies.
VFOIA provides that, with some specific exemptions and exceptions, all meetings of public bodies shall be open to the public and all public records open for public inspection.
By law, Fairfax County has five business days to respond to a FOIA request, although jurisdictions may request an additional seven working days for more complex issues.
The Office of Public Affairs has three staff positions dedicated to overseeing the county’s FOIA response process, though many departments and agencies also receive and respond to requests directly. The Office of the County Attorney and the Department of Information Technology also have dedicated positions to provide legal advice and search electronic files, respectively.
To help organize and streamline the county’s response process, the county implemented a custom-made centralized tracking application last year. This tool, in part, helped the county average a response time of three business days for all FOIA requests.
In 2018, the Police Department, the Fire and Rescue Department and the Health Department received the most FOIA requests, with the three agencies alone making up more than 70 percent of all requests received in the county.
Other interesting facts from county’s 2018 VFOIA annual report include:
- 66 percent of FOIA responses were delivered by email.
- More FOIAs were submitted in October than any other month.
- The average fee charged was $12.
To celebrate Sunshine Week in March — an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for individuals and the community — the county hosted more than 200 attendees from more than 20 jurisdictions to an open FOIA training. The event included FOIA officers, attorneys, law enforcement personnel and public information officers.
The half-day educational and networking seminar featured Alan Gernhardt, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, and covered topics such as what is a public record, who has access rights under Virginia FOIA, what responses are allowed and other tips for anyone who deals with government information.
Countywide FOIA Officer Amanda Kastl notes that the connections made during the event were one of the best takeaways of the day. “It was empowering and enlightening to meet so many other FOIA practitioners who support open government and who overcome similar challenges when responding to FOIA requests.”
The full training can be seen in the video below.