By Catherine MacDonald and Sarah Sonies
Capital News Service
Phil and Ellen Winter of Waynesboro, Va., were concerned when they noticed the city failed to deposit their property tax check on time. This prompted the retired mathematicians to gather more than 100 pages of government documents, which showed the city treasurer had allegedly mishandled about $400,000 in city and state taxpayer money.
Not only did they reveal information pertinent to their own dollars, the Winters made quite a stir: The couple shared their information with local newspapers, ultimately directly affecting the outcome of the next election, when a challenger defeated the incumbent city treasurer.
It’s no longer a rare occurrence for individual citizens to make a splash as the Winters did. The couple used the Freedom of Information Act, a law that makes it possible for the public to obtain certain types of documents and access to meetings, to investigate their local government.
Though FOIA is often considered used predominantly by journalists, it is an important tool for citizens.
“The Freedom of Information act is a citizens’ law,” said Ginger Stanley, the executive director of the Virginia Press Association. “I think that there is a misunderstanding that this law is primarily for the press, but that is not the case at all.”
“It is very important that citizens of Virginia take part in their local government action and understand that access to government information is the way that you can be an effective citizen and voter in the commonwealth,” Stanley said.
Stanley said the Virginia FOIA laws are especially accessible to citizens.
“Our law is very friendly for citizens because they don’t have to request it in writing, they don’t have to pay up front and, in most instances, if it is simple request, the government entity doesn’t even charge,” Stanley said.
“So in many instances, it is a free service that is expected of our government. That’s one thing that state employees should expect … Part of their job is to accommodate the citizens of Virginia.”
Stanley said the VPA primarily receives FOIA-related queries from reporters and newspaper editors, but several times a month the organization gets calls from citizens who are having difficulty obtaining records and request help. She said she usually suggests they get in touch with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
“(VCOG has) the most flexibility in helping citizens,” Stanley said. VCOG is a nonprofit alliance formed to promote expanded access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of VCOG, said she sees a wide range of resistance when citizens request the organization’s help with FOIA requests.
“When FOIA requests are being filed, we see lots of instances where … it is easy and painless and there are no problems at all,” Rhyne said. “And then we see plenty of situations where there is a lot of resistance to turning over those records.”
Dave Mills, the director of the Virginia Democratic Party, said his group received help from VCOG when the party filed a FOIA request in response to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s lawsuit regarding the passage of health care reform.
Mills said an organization like the Virginia Democratic Party might have an easier time requesting information under FOIA than a citizen working alone.
“Any bigger organization has an advantage because the opposition is more apt to make sure things go well,” Mills said. “If you snub a big organization, you run the risk of snubbing a bigger population, and it is more likely to receive media coverage because there will be more citizens affected.”
However, Mills said he has never talked to a private citizen who has sent a FOIA request to the attorney general’s office and “been upset with the response.”
Local FOIA Heroes: A Snapshot
Phil and Ellen Winter of Waynesboro, Va., won third place in the American Society of News Editors’ 2010 Local Heroes Contest for their investigation into their local government.
Born: Springfield, Mo.
Family: One brother, extended family, etc.
My day job: Retired/volunteer (AARP tax prep, City Library Board, etc.)
Favorite pastimes: Volunteering, reading
I got involved because: I couldn’t identify any other, less public, solution to this significant problem that had a good probability of success.
I couldn’t have done it without: Wife; News Virginian Editor (Lee Wolverton)
My message to others: Get involved, make a difference.
People I admire: Wife, U.S. military members who are willing to give their life for our country
Born: Washington, D.C.
Family: Sister and extended family in Richmond, Va., relatives in Iowa.
My day job is: Retired, now volunteering; former high school math teacher/volunteer.
Favorite pastimes: Swimming, biking, kayaking, mahjong, reading mysteries, volunteering.
I got involved because: I was frustrated the city was losing money (interest) unnecessarily because money was not deposited in a timely fashion, and people were being billed for payments they had already made, because payments had not been processed by the next billing cycle.
I couldn’t have done it without: Husband; News Virginian Editor (Lee Wolverton); Augusta Free Press Editor (Chris Graham).
My message to others: You can make a difference!
People I admire: Husband, volunteers.
Index to User-Friendly Guide to FOIA