VIRGINIA BEACH — A Virginia law known as the Freedom of Information Act, commonly known as FOIA, guarantees residents of the state access to records maintained by public bodies, public officials, and public employees.
Below is a general guide to accessing City of Virginia Beach documents using FOIA requests.
General limitations of FOIA
According to the Virginia FOIA Council’s website, there are more than 100 exemptions afforded for records and meeting requests.
Some frequently applied records exemptions include; personnel information, legal advice, proprietary information, and documents relating to ongoing negotiations. The FOIA Council also has a full list of record exemptions available online.
Law enforcement and public school systems are afforded other exemptions specific to those agencies.
Melena Johnson is the FOIA specialist for the City of Virginia Beach. She facilitates requests for documents related to City Council, the city manager, and other city departments. Additional contact information can be found here.
Although individuals are not required to submit a FOIA request in writing, they may do so using the city’s FOIA Request Center, which requires free registration and can be accessed here.
The city also posts a list of past FOIA requests online, which is updated monthly.
FIOA requests for the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office are sent to Capt. Linda Richie.
While all FOIA requests have to be answered within five business days, complex requests may take more time, said Kathy Hieatt, public information officer for the VBSO. In those cases, Hieatt said the requester will be notified that an extension is needed to meet their request.
There are multiple types of information that are exempt from FOIA disclosure by law enforcement, including but not limited to; information related to ongoing investigations, records regarding juveniles, or information about witnesses or confidential informants, according to the Virginia Beach Police Department’s FOIA website.
The police and sheriff’s office do not provide criminal histories. People can access information about inmates using the sheriff’s office inmate lookup website and can also look up crime reports, traffic reports, and active warrants using the city’s EPro website.
Virginia Beach City Public Schools
All public schools, are afforded special exemptions to the release of information. For example, records about school safety procedures are exempt from disclosure by FOIA.
The release of students’ disciplinary records or transcripts are also exempt, and are actually governed by another federal law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Sutton said.
However, parents or legal guardians of VBCPS students do have the right to request their children’s records, and do not need to file a FOIA for that.
“All they need to do is go to the office in their child’s school and fill out a form,” Sutton said.
As a general rule, Sutton said he does not charge for any request that takes less than one hour.
“Anything over that I will charge the hourly wage of the person compiling the request,” Sutton said. “People are under the impression that everything is at our disposal and at our fingertips — that we can access everything immediately. Sometimes we have to take a dive deep and find information that isn’t readily available.”
Sutton’s advice to the public about FOIA requests?
“The more precise people are in their requests the more specific the documents and the time frame are, the easier the process will be,” Sutton said.
The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council may be contacted with questions by email or phone at 804-225-3056.