Fairfax County fielded 8,469 Freedom of Information Act requests in 2018, the county found in its first annual FOIA report released on Mar. 27.
The report covers the first full year since the county adopted a new FOIA policy and created a centralized office for dealing with requests for public county records, giving some insight into what aspects of county operations interest citizens and the media.
“It really gives us an opportunity to take an overview of the whole FOIA process and the changes we’ve made over the last couple of years and put all that information in one place for us to better understand how we were performing,” Fairfax County Director of Public Affairs Tony Castrilli said. “[It] also allows county leadership to have a snapshot of what’s going on.”
Fairfax County consolidated its staff dedicated to handling FOIA requests under the Office of Public Affairs in 2017 and implemented its first-ever countywide FOIA policy on Jan. 1, 2018, according to Countywide FOIA Officer Amanda Kastl.
Castrilli says the increasing complexity and frequency of FOIA requests directed to the county suggested more coordinated response efforts would be necessary instead of each office or agency having its own process.
Given its staff’s experience in communicating with media and the public as well as the county’s various departments, the Office of Public Affairs seemed like an appropriate body to provide oversight.
Some county agencies, such as the Fairfax County Police Department, still have personnel that receive and respond to FOIA requests directly, and not all public records are in the custody of the Fairfax County government.
The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, Fairfax County Public Schools, Clerk of the Fairfax County Courts, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Fairfax County Water Authority, and the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority all maintain their records independently and, as a result, were not included in the county’s annual FOIA report.
Still, Kastl says that the creation of a centralized office and a countywide policy has helped improve Fairfax County’s process for responding to FOIA requests.
“The purpose of the policy is really to balance the county’s commitment to transparency and openness, but also ensuring that the protection of the county’s privacy interests and security interests are maintained,” Kastl said.
The Office of Public Affairs has three staff positions dedicated to overseeing the county’s FOIA response process, and Kastl says the centralized office typically receives between one and 12 requests in a day, not including ones that go directly to a specific agency or department.
According to the Fairfax County FOIA annual report, the Office of Public Affairs provided direct assistance on 890 FOIA requests in 2018.
Overall, Fairfax County received an average of 34 FOIA requests per working day.
Police fielded the most with 2,509 requests, followed by 2,477 for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and 1,043 for the Fairfax County Health Department. Those three agencies accounted for more than 70 percent of the FOIA requests sent to the county.
53 percent of records requests were made by non-Virginia residents, while Virginia residents made 45 percent of the requests and media made 2 percent, according to the annual report.
Notably, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to respond to FOIA requests within five working days, but Fairfax County had a three-day average response time that the county attributes in part to its utilization of a new centralized tracking application tool.
“We work very diligently to respond as quickly as possible, even though we have the full five days,” Kastl said. “I was excited and delighted to see that the average response time was two full days less than FOIA requires.”
Kastl says one of the biggest challenges that public information officers in the county have been facing is a recent uptick in requests for electronic records, such as emails, text messages, and social media posts.
According to the annual report, at least 500 FOIA requests in 2018 were looking for email records, and emails and texts were among the most frequently requested records in 2018, along with county policies, police and fire reports, land plats, employee salaries, and environmental inspections.
Fairfax County collected $83,911 in FOIA fees that covered labor and copy costs, according to Kastl, who says the county tries to provide electronic responses when possible to reduce those costs.
66 percent of all FOIA responses were delivered by email in 2018, according to the annual report.
The fire department collected $21,989 in fees, surpassing the $19,510 assessed by the FCPD and $19,033 collected by Fairfax County Land Development Services.
The county’s FOIA policy dictates that waivers should be considered when the cost of producing a response falls under $50. 3,706 fee waivers were granted in 2018.
In addition to fielding requests, the Fairfax County FOIA office is responsible for training other county employees to understand how state law and county policies work and strategies they can use to respond to requests more efficiently.
Countywide employee FOIA trainings are held quarterly with the next one scheduled to take place in the morning of June 19.
As part of Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide initiative led by the American Society of News Editors to educate the community about the importance of public information access, Fairfax County hosted an open FOIA training that brought in more than 200 attendees, including FOIA officers, attorneys, and law enforcement personnel, from over 20 jurisdictions.
“We wanted to promote open government beyond Fairfax County,” Kastl said. “…I’m hopeful that, in the future, our ability to connect with other FOIA practitioners will enable us to learn more about other best practices and how others face challenges in the FOIA process, which in turn, I think, will better allow us to respond to FOIA requesters.”