In most states, people who ask for copies of public records are required to pay the agency from whom they request the copies a fee for finding the copies. This is sometimes known as a “search fee”.
In March, Style Weekly was working on an article about “low morale, nepotism and operational errors” at the Richmond sheriff’s office and at the Richmond city jail. Their reporters wanted to know about salaries in the sheriff’s office so they filed a FOIA request.
A Freedom of Information Act request to Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr.’s office in March attempting to obtain jail staff salary information required 19 hours and at least three staff members — including two supervisors — to complete.
The newspaper was billed $324.25 for this information.
Style Weekly wondered why it cost so much, so they contacted an independent expert:
In an effort to confirm the cost of the services rendered, Style called an expert in database management. We told him what we were told by sheriff’s officials: that the information requested had to be pulled from an antiquated database system that is currently used by the sheriff’s office to maintain its payroll.
“I don’t think it would take more than three hours at the most,” says a skeptical Edwin Huertas, chief technology officer at Richmond technology consulting firm Tec-Head. “Even using a manual process …19 hours is a lot. It’s almost like three days of work.
However, under Virginia open records legislation, nothing prevents government agencies from using databases that will make it expensive and difficult to locate the information citizens and reporters want.