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Sunday, March 10, 2013
Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government, starts today. In past years, I have marked this occasion with investigations into public records and meetings. I shared information the government owes the people under the Freedom of Information Act.
This year, instead of looking at what FOIA means to the people, I want to share what it looks like from the perspective of the gatekeepers, the public servants who must abide by it.
People who follow news about Virginia Tech probably recognize the name of Associate Vice President of University Relations Larry Hincker. His office handles communications for the school, including both inquiries from pestering editorial writers and records requests from anyone.
I sat down with him and special assistant B.J. Norris to talk about open government and how things have changed over the years.
As recently as 2007, open government was just a small part of their job. “I could count on both hands the number of requests that we used to get,” Hincker said. They mostly came from the media and an occasional sports agent.
These days, Hincker and Norris field more than 100 requests in a school year. There are so many that Norris spends almost half her time dealing with them.
So far this year, more than 80 requests have come in — 32 percent from media, 28 percent from individuals and 21 percent from businesses. A hodgepodge of other groups round out the remainder.
Half of all requests are related to athletics in some way. Hincker and Norris keep Frank Beamer’s and other coaches’ contracts handy so they can shoot them off in an email quickly when asked.
The requests from businesses are especially interesting or annoying, depending on your view. FOIA has become a corporate tool. Companies compile government data and make strategic decisions based on it or convert it into proprietary databases to which they sell subscriptions.
Rate-your-professors websites, college-rankings publications and even a website that shares koofers are regular filers at Tech.
(“Koofers,” a term coined at Virginia Tech years ago, are past class exams that students share. Test banks have gone from dusty filing cabinets in the basements of Greek houses to the Internet. The exams themselves are not public records, but anonymous grade distributions are.)
At least businesses usually know what they are looking for. The toughest requests Tech receives are from people who are not quite sure what they want. They file vague, open-ended requests for documents that might not even exist. There was the woman, for example, who sent six lengthy questions, each of which would have required massive database crunching beyond the scope of what FOIA requires.
“It’s almost like they want us to be research assistants,” Hincker lamented.
“They’re not requesting documents. They’re asking us to go out and create documents that have this information,” Norris added.
Both advise calling ahead if you have an odd or complicated request. They will work with people to narrow the scope to just the information someone wants, saving frustration all around.
It can save money, too. If a document is readily retrievable, they will send it for free. With complicated requests, the bills can add up. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals once filed a request that would have cost thousands of dollars to fill. When PETA got the estimate, it thought better.
Some requests go too far. The person who asked for the heights and dimensions of every building on campus was denied over security concerns. So was the person who wanted to know about all the closed-circuit cameras.
While I chatted with Hincker and Norris, it was evident just how seriously they take their FOIA obligations. They put in the hard hours when necessary and judiciously use exemptions.
“There’s a lot of things about this law that drive me crazy sometimes, but the spirit of the law is [the records] are here,” Hincker said.
I wish more government officials shared his pragmatic view and willingness to ensure the public can see what government is doing.
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