The City and FOIA

3/14/2024, 6 p.m.
Following media reports detailing issues faced in obtaining timely responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and a $250,000 ...

Following media reports detailing issues faced in obtaining timely responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and a $250,000 lawsuit filed March 1 by the City of Richmond’s former FOIA officer, the city plans to overhaul how it receives and handles those requests.

This breaking news came after whistleblower Connie Clay told media outlets she was fired from her position as FOIA officer by Petula Burks, the city’s strategic communications and civic engagement officer, on Jan. 19. In her suit, Ms. Clay alleges her firing was retaliation because of her refusal to go along with actions by the city, which intentionally withheld or delayed the provision of public information requested through FOIA, or quoted exorbitant fees in order to deter requestors.

The day after Ms. Clay’s lawsuit was filed, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders sent an email to City Council outlining five changes it is planning to implement to improve the speed and efficiency of the FOIA process.

According to the memo, a copy of which was provided to the Free Press, the steps would entail:

• Reinstating a decentralized system to process FOIA requests

• Appointing Matthew Welch, former FOIA adviser for the City Council, as the city’s interim FOIA officer

• Establishing a new FOIA email to be overseen by Mr. Welch

• Creating new interdepartmental standards for processing FOIA requests

• Considering the hiring of an outside legal firm to assist with FOIAs moving forward

While the city had been working to centralize the FOIA process to “take the burden off individual departments,” Mr. Saunders acknowledged it had faced “several challenges, including hiring enough people with the appropriate expertise to effectively build out this new function.” He also stated that FOIA requests had “significantly increased” in recent months, with up to 80 requests a week, many of which were “expansive in nature.”

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to supply public information and documents to residents and media in the state. They have five business days in which to respond to any request or seek an additional seven-day extension before they are considered not in compliance with the law and face possible legal action.

The lawsuit by Ms. Clay is still ongoing. A statement issued by City Attorney Laura Drewry said, “The city believes the claims are baseless and intends to defend the lawsuit in court.”

Baseless claims or not, media outlets, along with people filing “up to 80 (FOIA) requests a week” eagerly await a decision in Ms. Clay’s lawsuit.

Baseless claims or not, no city employee should be fired for refusing to go along with questionable actions by the city that result in lengthy delays and exorbitant fees forced upon residents and taxpayers.