Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Cost of Transparency: Tab for public records ranges from $0 to $500 at Virginia universities


Protecting Its' Own: "The University of Virginia wants to charge the most for its president’s contract and travel records  — $510."

Photo from Kathryn Watson
Photo from Kathryn Watson
FOIA CHARGES: Different schools charge different amounts for the same FOIA request. Some charge $0, while UVA is requesting $500.
By Kathryn Watson |, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — It isn’t news to anyone paying tuition at one of Virginia’s public universities that different schools charge different tuition rates.
It turns out those different price tags apply to requests for public information, too.
In light of a recent state audit pointing out universities’ massive travel tabs, requested the employment contracts and two years’ worth of travel expense records for all of Virginia’s 15 public university presidents.
In the end, public records estimates were not created equally. Virginia law allows public bodies charge a “reasonable” amount that doesn’t exceed the actual cost of producing the documents. But that word “reasonable” is up for interpretation, and can be settled only by a judge.
The University of Virginia wants to charge the most for its president’s contract and travel records  — $510. They reached that figure by estimating it would take seven hours at $45 an hour for the “staff time searching and collecting potentially responsive records.”
Then, once those potentially relevant records were compiled, administrators estimated it would take another three hours at $65 an hour for the “staff time searching, collecting and reviewing records for responsiveness.” UVA noted that those costs are based on the employee’s base salary, which, at $65 an hour, would be about $135,000 a year.
UVA’s separate liberal arts college, UVA College at Wise, took a different approach. Kathy Still, the university’s director of news and media relations, said it’s generally their practice to give public records free. Radford University and George Mason University also said the records would be available free of charge.
Other schools, like Lexington’s Virginia Military Institute, charged something in between. VMI requested $60 to produce the records. Blacksburg’s Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University wanted $52.
Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said she’s noticed a gradual uptick in the hourly rate government agencies charge for public records.
“It seems like five years ago, hourly rate people tended to be people whose job it was to handle FOIA requests,” Rhyne said. “They weren’t a manger or they weren’t that high up. So you’d be charged somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 an hour.”
But that isn’t the case anymore, she said. Now, staff attorneys or people at the top of the information technology food chain do the work.
“It does seem that more highly paid individuals are getting involved in the FOIA process,” Rhyne said. “I don’t necessarily mean to imply they’re doing that as a way to jack up fees, but I do think it’s a byproduct of shrinking budgets. They have fewer employees, they’re trying to do more with less.”
But prices don’t just vary at government agencies. Often, the same agency will charge different people different prices for the same or a similar request.
Journalists sometimes get off the hook, for example, while citizens who who don’t mine public records for a living have to pay.
“I’ve been in touch with citizens who have been charged for certain records, and then I hear from a reporter that they just gave that record. Over the years, from talking with a lot of my reporter friends, it is clear that many of them do get their records at little or no cost,” Rhyne said. will be reporting the findings of those employment benefits and travel records in the weeks ahead. 
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for, and can be found on Twitter @kathrynw5.

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