The Rights of Requesters and the Responsibilities of the County of Albemarle
under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), located at § 2.2-3700 et seq. of the Code of Virginia, guarantees citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia and representatives of the media that broadcast or have circulation in the Commonwealth access to public records held by public bodies, public officials, and public employees.
A public record is any writing or recording -- regardless of whether it is a paper record, an electronic file, an audio or video recording, or any other format -- that is prepared or owned by, or in the possession of a public body or its officers, employees or agents in the transaction of public business. All public records are presumed to be open, and may only be withheld if a specific, statutory exemption applies.
Virginia Code § 2.2-3700 states that the purpose of FOIA is to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities. In furthering this policy, FOIA requires that the law be interpreted liberally, in favor of access, and that any exemption allowing public records to be withheld must be interpreted narrowly.
- Citizens have the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records, or both.
- Citizens have the right to request that any charges for the requested records be estimated in advance.
- If a citizen believes that his or her FOIA rights have been violated, he or she may file a petition in district or circuit court to compel compliance with FOIA. Alternatively, he or she may contact the FOIA Advisory Council for a nonbinding advisory opinion.
Making a Request for Records from Albemarle County
- A citizen may request records by U.S. Mail, fax, e-mail, in person, or over the phone. FOIA does not require that the requestor state why he or she wants the records, or that the request be in writing, nor does the requestor need to specifically state that he or she is requesting records under FOIA.
- From a practical perspective, it may be helpful to both the requestor and the person receiving the request for the requestor to put the request in writing. This allows a record of the request to be created. It also gives the County a clear statement of what records are being requested, so that there is no misunderstanding over a verbal request. However, the County cannot refuse to respond to a FOIA request if the requestor elects to not put it in writing.
- The request must identify the records being sought with "reasonable specificity." This is a common-sense standard. It does not refer to or limit the volume or number of records being requested; instead, it requires that the requestor be specific enough so that the County can identify and locate the records being sought.
- The request must be for existing records or documents. FOIA gives citizens a right to inspect or copy records; it does not apply to a situation where the requestor is asking general questions about the work of Albemarle County, nor does it require Albemarle County to create a record that does not exist.
- The requestor may choose to receive electronic records in any format used by Albemarle County in the regular course of business.
- For example, if a citizen is requesting records maintained in an Excel spreadsheet, the requestor may elect to receive those records electronically, via e-mail or on a computer disk, or to receive a printed copy of those records.
- If the County has questions about the request, the requestor should cooperate with staff's efforts to clarify the type of records being sought, or to attempt to reach a reasonable agreement about a response to a large request. Making a FOIA request is not an adversarial process, but the County may need to discuss the request with the requestor to ensure that it is understood what records are being sought.
To request records from Albemarle County, citizens may direct their requests to the appropriate staff contact for each department as listed in the table at the bottom of this page. If citizens are unsure of where to direct their requests, or if they have questions regarding the process of requesting records from the County, they may contact the County’s FOIA Officer, Erika Castillo, at 434-972-4067 (phone), 434-972-4068 (fax), or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Media may contact Lee Catlin at 434-296-5841 (phone) or email@example.com. In addition, the FOIA Advisory Council is available to answer any questions citizens may have about FOIA. The Council may be contacted by phone at (804) 225-3056 or [toll free] 1-866-448-4100, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Albemarle County’s Responsibilities in Responding to a Request
- The County must respond to requests within five working days of receiving a request. "Day One" is considered the day after the request is received. The five-day period does not include weekends or holidays.
- FOIA allows the County to require requestors to provide their name and legal address.
- FOIA requires that the County make one of the following responses to a request within the five-day time period:
- The County provides the requestor with the records that they have requested in their entirety.
- The County withholds all of the records that have been requested, because all of the records are subject to a specific statutory exemption. If all of the records are being withheld, the County must send the requestor a response in writing. That writing must identify the volume and subject matter of the records being withheld, and state the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows the County to withhold the records.
- The County provides some of the records that have been requested, but withholds other records. The County cannot withhold an entire record if only a portion of it is subject to an exemption. In that instance, the County may redact the portion of the record that may be withheld, and must provide the requestor with the remainder of the record. The County must provide the requestor with a written response stating the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows portions of the requested records to be withheld.
- The County informs the requestor in writing that the requested records cannot be found or do not exist (the County does not have the records the requestor wants). However, if the County knows that another public body has the requested records, the County must include contact information for the other public body in its response to the requestor.
- If it is practically impossible for the County to respond to the request within the five-day period, the County must state this in writing, explaining the conditions that make the response impossible. This will allow the County seven additional working days to respond to the request, giving the County a total of 12 working days to respond to the request.
- If a citizen makes a request for a very large number of records, and the County cannot provide the records to the requestor within 12 working days without disrupting its other organizational responsibilities, the County will make a reasonable effort to reach an agreement with the requestor regarding an extension of time in which to produce the records. If the County and the requestor are unable to reach an agreement, the County may petition the court for additional time to respond to the request.
- The County may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. The County shall not impose any extraneous, intermediary, or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the County. Any duplicating fee charged by the County shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication.
- The requestor may have to pay for the records that are requested from the County. FOIA allows the County to charge for the actual costs of responding to FOIA requests. This would include items such as staff time spent searching for the requested records, copying costs, or any other costs directly related to supplying the requested records. It cannot include general overhead costs.
- If the County estimates that it will cost more than $200 to respond to a request, the County may require the requestor to pay a deposit, not to exceed the amount of the estimate, before proceeding with the request. The five day response time for a request does not include the time between when the County asks for a deposit and when the requestor responds to the County.
- The requestor may request that the County estimate in advance the charges for supplying the records that have been requested. This will allow the requestor to know about any costs upfront, or give the requestor an opportunity to modify the request in an attempt to lower the estimated costs.
- If the requestor owes the County money from a previous FOIA request that has remained unpaid for more than 30 days, the County may require payment of the past-due bill before it will respond to the new FOIA request.
Types of Records
The following is a general description of the types of records held by Albemarle County:
- Agendas and minutes of meetings of the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission, and other boards and committees
- Records related to contracts of the County
- Building permits, site plans, zoning violations, and special use permits
- Property records and PDFs of maps found in the County Geographic Information System (GIS)
- Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) records from ECC 911 calls
- Position descriptions and salary documentation of employees and County officials
If citizens are unsure whether the County has the record(s) they want, citizens may contact the appropriate staff contact for each department as listed on the attached Appendix A, or they may contact the County’s FOIA Officer, Erika Castillo, at 434-972-4067 (phone), 434-972-4068 (fax), or email@example.com. The Media may contact Lee Catlin at 434-296-5841 (phone) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Commonly Used Exemptions
The Code of Virginia allows the County to withhold certain records from public disclosure. The following are common exemptions cited by Albemarle County when it withholds records from public disclosure:
- Personnel records (Virginia Code § 2.2-3705.1(1))
- Records subject to attorney-client privilege (Virginia Code § 2.2-3705.1(2)) or attorney work product (Virginia Code § 2.2-3705.1(3))
- Vendor proprietary information (Virginia Code § 2.2-3705.1(6))
- Records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract, prior to a contract being awarded (Virginia Code § 2.2-3705.1(12))
- Records relating to criminal investigative files (Virginia Code § 2.2-3706(A)(1)(a))