FOIA rights and responsibilities
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), located § 2.2-3700 et seq. of the Code of Virginia, guarantees citizens of the Commonwealth and representatives of the media 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.
The policy of FOIA 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.
- You have the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records, or both.
- You have the right to request that any charges for the requested records be estimated in advance.
- If you believe that your FOIA rights have been violated, you may file a petition in district or circuit court to compel compliance with FOIA. Alternatively, you may contact the FOIA Council for a nonbinding advisory opinion.
Below learn how to make a request, about the County's responsibility, costs, exemptions, and resources.
Making a FOIA request from Montgomery County and the Public Service Authority (PSA)
You may request records from Montgomery County, the Public Service Authority and constitutional offices (referred to as "the County") by U.S. Mail, fax, email, in person or over the phone. FOIA does not require that your request be in writing, nor do you need to specifically state that you are requesting records under FOIA.
From a practical perspective, it is often helpful to both you and the person receiving your request to put your request in writing. This allows you to document your request. It also gives County staff a clear statement of what records you are requesting, so that there is no misunderstanding over a verbal request. However, the County cannot refuse to respond to your FOIA request if you elect not to put it in writing.
Your request must identify the records you are seeking with "reasonable specificity" so that the County can identify and locate the records you are seeking. This is a commonsense standard. It does not refer to or limit the volume of number of records you are requesting; instead, it requires that you be specific enough so that we can identify and locate the records you are seeking.
Your request must ask for existing records or documents. FOIA gives you a right to inspect or copy records; it does not apply to a situation where you are asking general questions about the work of the County, nor does it require the County to create a record that does not exist.
You may choose to receive electronic records in any format used by the County in the regular course of business. For example, if you are requesting records maintained in an Excel database, you may elect to receive those records electronically, via email or on a computer disk, or to receive a printed copy of those records.
If the County has questions about your request, please cooperate with County staff's efforts to clarify the type of records you are seeking, 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 we may need to discuss a request with you to ensure that we understand what records you are seeking.
Where to send a FOIA request:
Public Information Office
755 Roanoke St., Suite 2G
Christiansburg, VA 24073
(540) 394-2120 ext. 4104
(fax) (540) 382-6943
You may also contact Jennifer Harris for FOIA requests concerning the Public Service Authority and Commissioner of the Revenue's Office.
For the Sheriff's Office, contact Capt. Brian Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, please contact these offices directly: Commonwealth's Attorney, Treasurer and Clerk of Circuit Court.
The County's responsibilities in responding to your request
The County must respond to your request within five working days of receiving it. "Day one" is considered the day after your request is received. The five-day period does not include weekends or holidays.
The reason behind your request for public records is irrelevant, and you do not have to state why you want the records before responding to your request. FOIA does allow the County to require you to provide your name and legal address.
FOIA requires that the County make one of the following responses to your request within the five-day time period:
- We provide you with the records you have requested in their entirety.
- We withhold all of the records you have 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 you 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 or other law that allows us to withhold the records.
- We provide some of the records you have requested, but withhold 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 you with the remainder of the record. The County must provide you with a written response stating the specific section of the Code of Virginia or other law that allows portions of the requested records to be withheld.
- We inform you in writing that the requested records cannot be found or do not exist (we do not have the records you want.) However, if we know that another public body has the requested records, we must include contact information for the other public body in our response to you.
- If it is practically impossible for the County to respond to your 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 your request, giving the County a total of 12 working days to respond to your request.
If you make a request for a very large number of records, and County staff cannot provide the records to you within 12 days without disrupting other organizational responsibilities, the County may petition the court for additional time to respond to your request. However, FOIA requires that the County make a reasonable effort to reach an agreement with you concerning the production or the records before it goes to court to ask for more time.
- A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall 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 public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication. All charges for the supplying of requested records shall be estimated in advance at the request of the citizen as set forth in subsection F of § 2.2-3704 of the Code of Virginia.
- You may have to pay for the record you request from the County. FOIA allows us to charge for the actual costs of responding to FOIA requests. This would include items like 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 we estimate that it will cost more than $200 to respond to your request, we may require you to pay a deposit, not to exceed the amount of the estimate, before proceeding with your request. The five days that we have to respond to your request does not include the time between when we ask for a deposit and when you respond.
- You may request that we estimate in advance the charges for supplying the records that you have requested. This will allow you to know about any costs upfront, or give you the opportunity to modify your request in an attempt to lower the estimated costs.
- If you owe 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 your new FOIA request.
Types of records
The following is a general description of the types of records held by the County:
If you are unsure whether the County has the record(s) you seek, please contact Derley Aguilar directly at 755 Roanoke St., Suite 2G, Christiansburg, VA, 24073, (540) 394-2120 ext. 4104 or (fax) (540) 382-6943.
Commonly used exemptions
The Code of Virginia allows any public body to withhold certain records from public disclosure. The County commonly withholds records subject to the following exemptions:
- Personnel records (§ 2.2-3705.1 (1) of the Code of Virginia).
- Records subject to attorney-client privilege (§ 2.2-3705.1 (2)) or attorney work product (§ 2.2-3705.1 (3)).
- Vendor proprietary information (§ 2.2-3705.1 (6)).
- Records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract, prior to a contract being awarded (§ 2.2-3705.1 (12)).
- Plans and information to prevent or respond to terrorist activity (§ 2.2-3705.2 (4)).
- Personal confidential financial tax information pursuant to (§ 58.1-3).
More information about FOIA may be found through the Freedom of Information Advisory Council. The council may be contacted by email at email@example.com, or by phone at 804-225-3056 or toll free at 1-866-448-4100. The FOIA Council also posts useful information about FOIA, including advisory opinions, at http://foiacouncil.dls.virginia.gov.