BERRYVILLE — It is not all that unusual for a city, town or county to receive a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from one of its elected officials, according to an expert.
Alan Gernhardt, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Council, declined to give an opinion about Berryville Mayor Patricia Dickinson’s recent submission of a formal FOIA request to Town Manager Keith Dalton because he did not know all of the details pertaining to it.
But “it doesn’t surprise me at all” that she submitted one, Gernhardt said.
Dickinson submitted her request in May to get information on the status of a plaque being made to honor Clarke County residents chosen as Veterans of the Year.
The plaque, to be installed at the Berryville-Clarke County Government Center on Chalmers Court, is courtesy of the World War I Centennial Committee, which disbanded last year after coordinating local activities marking the war’s 100th anniversary.
Dickinson has said she basically established the committee, with support from the town and county, and was “kind of the go-to person to get things done behind the scenes,” although decisions were made as a group.
Her FOIA request flummoxed other Berryville Town Council members who, during their regular meeting this month, questioned why she did not simply ask Dalton for the information.
Dickinson responded that she was trying to get as much information as possible about the plaque’s status. Dalton has said he would have given Dickinson any information she verbally requested, as long as he had it to give.
The Freedom of Information Council occasionally has heard about FOIA requests submitted by elected and hired officials to obtain documents or information from the governments they represent, Gernhardt said. In a phone interview, he said he was unable to remember any specific requests, what was requested or reasons why the requests were made. He added that the council does not keep records of such requests.
Generally, though, officials will make a FOIA request when “they’re not getting the information they think they should have” to help them make decisions or, in the case of government employees, do their jobs effectively, he said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s unusual” for government officials to make FOIA requests, Gernhardt said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s common, either. But it does happen.”
There is no reason why an elected official or government employee cannot use FOIA to get information they consider important, according to Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
“Elected officials have no more — but no fewer, either — rights under FOIA” than a regular citizen or member of the news media, Rhyne wrote in a blog on the coalition’s website after reading The Winchester Star’s coverage of Dickinson’s request online.
The requester, not the government, determines what information is important, she emphasized.
About Dickinson’s request, Rhyne wrote, “Council members complained that she [Dickinson] should have just asked for the information. The manager could give her an absolutely straightforward and 100% correct response. But he could also inadvertently leave something out or he could interpret an event or conversation differently from the way the council member might have. (Obtaining) the records let the requester decide for herself, no matter who she is.”
“True transparency comes from letting the requester not only decide what is important to him or her but also from having the opportunity to interpret the records independently without a middle-man interpreter,” Rhyne added.
Gernhardt described FOIA as being “the default set of rules for asking for records from government.”
“Most people, when they ask for anything (documents or information) from local government, don’t ask for it through FOIA,” Gernhardt said. They just simply ask local officials for the information, and the officials provide it somehow out of interests for keeping government transparent, he indicated.
Yet FOIA is the mechanism that make such requests possible, whether they are made formally or informally, said Gernhardt.
“I would never consider a FOIA request to be extreme,” he said.