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Rights & Responsibilities:

                The Rights of Requesters and the Responsibilities of Amherst County under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act

 

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Va. Code §§ 2.2-3700 et seq., 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.

 

It is the policy of FOIA 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.

 

Your FOIA Rights

  • 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 general district or circuit court to compel compliance with FOIA.  Alternatively, you may contact the FOIA Council for a nonbinding advisory opinion.

 

Making a Request for records from Amherst County

 

  • You may request records by U.S. Mail, fax, e-mail, 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 may be helpful to both you and the person receiving your request to put your request in writing.  This allows you to create a record of your request.  It also gives us a clear statement of what records you are requesting, so that there is no misunderstanding over a verbal request.  However, we 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."  This is a common-sense standard.  It does not refer to or limit the volume or number of records that you are requesting; instead, it requires that you be specific enough so that we can identify and locate the records that 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 Amherst County, nor does it require Amherst County to create a record that does not exist.

 

  • You may choose to receive electronic records in any format used by Amherst 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 e-mail or on a computer disk, or to receive a printed copy of those records

 

  • If we have questions about your request, please cooperate with staff's efforts to clarify the type of records that 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 your request with you to ensure that we understand what records you are seeking.

To request records from Amherst County, you may direct your request to Rachel Carton the County’s FOIA Officer who can be reached at P.O. Box 390, 153 Washington Street, Amherst, Virginia 24521, or by calling 434-946-9431, or by e-mailing racarton@countyofamherst.com.   You may also contact 1) the FOIA Officer with questions you have concerning requesting records from Amherst County, or 2) Layney Sandifer the County’s Public Information Officer at P.O. Box 390, 153 Washington Street, Amherst, Virginia 24521, or by calling 434-946-9400, or by e-mailing lesandifer@countyofamherst.com.  In addition, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is available to answer any questions you may have about FOIA.  The Council may be contacted by e-mail at foiacouncil@dls.virginia.gov, or by phone at (804) 225-3056 or [toll free] 1-866-448-4100.

 

 

Amherst County’s Responsibilities in Responding to Your Request

  • Amherst County must respond to your request within five business days of receiving it.  "Day One" is considered the day after your request is received.  If your request is received after business hours, it will be treated as having been received the following day.  The five-day period does not include weekends or holidays.

 

  • The reason behind your request for public records from Amherst County is irrelevant, and you do not have to state why you want the records before we respond to your request.  FOIA does, however, allow Amherst County to require you to provide your name and legal address.

 

  • FOIA requires that Amherst County make one of the following responses to your request within the five-day time period:

 

  • We provide you with the records that you have requested in their entirety.

 

  • We withhold all of the records that you have requested, because all of the records are subject to a specific statutory exemption. If all of the records are being withheld, we 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 that allows us to withhold the records.

 

  • We provide some of the records that you have requested, but withhold other records. We cannot withhold an entire record if only a portion of it is subject to an exemption.  In that instance, we may redact the portion of the record that may be withheld, and must provide you with the remainder of the record.  We must provide you with a written response stating the specific section of the Code of Virginia 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 (i.e., 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 Amherst County to respond to your request within the five-day period, we must state this in writing, explaining the conditions that make the response impossible. This will allow us seven additional working days to respond to your request, giving us a total of 12 working days to respond to your request.

 

  • If you make a request for a very large number of records, and we feel that we cannot provide the records to you within 12 working days without disrupting our other organizational responsibilities, we may petition the court for additional time to respond to your request.  However, FOIA requires that we make a reasonable effort to reach an agreement with you concerning the production or the records before we go to court to ask for more time.

Costs

 

  • 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 records that you request from Amherst 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 us money from a previous FOIA request that has remained unpaid for more than 30 days, Amherst 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 Amherst County:

 

  • Records relating to the names, salaries, and positions of personnel and officials of Amherst County.
  • Records relating to procurements of and contracts for goods and services by the County.
  • Records relating to rezonings, subdivisions, site plans, and development permits.
  • Records relating to the County budget and revenues.

 

If you are unsure whether Amherst County has the record(s) you seek, please contact either 1) Rachel Carton our FOIA Officer directly at P.O. Box 390, 153 Washington Street, Amherst, Virginia 24521, or by calling 434-946-9431 or by e-mailing racarton@countyofamherst.com, or 2) Layney Sandifer the Public Information Officer at P.O. Box 390, 153 Washington Street, Amherst, Virginia 24521, or by calling 434-946-9400 or by emailing lesandifer@countyofamherst.com

 

Commonly used exemptions

 

The Code of Virginia allows any public body to withhold certain records from public disclosure.  Amherst County commonly withholds records subject to the following exemptions:

 

  • Personnel records concerning employees and officials of Amherst County, except for the names, positions, and salaries of individuals who earn more than $10,000. Va. Code § 2.2-3705.1(1), § 2.2-3705.8(A).
  • Internal working papers of the county administrator. Va. Code § 2.2-3705.7(2).
  • Documents compiled solely for use in closed session. Va. Code § 2.2-3705.1(5).
  • Information concerning persons making confidential complaints for zoning, building code, and fire code violations. Va. Code § 2.2-3705.3(9).
  • Confidential proprietary records provided by a private business under a promise of confidentiality, used by us for development or retention of business, trade, and tourism. Va. Code § 2.2-3705.6(3).
  • Legal advice, work product, and memoranda of legal counsel for the County. Va. Code § 2.2-3705.1(2) and (3).
  • Records of procurements prior to award of the contract. Va. Code § 2.2-3705.1(12) and § 2.2-4342.
  • Appraisals and cost estimate data on property to be sold or acquired prior to closing the transaction. Va. Code § 2.2-3705.1(8).

Policy regarding the use of exemptions

FOIA includes both discretionary and required exemptions. Required exemptions are, in effect, confidentiality requirements. Amherst County’s policy is to use those exemptions to the extent required by law. With regard to discretionary exemptions, it is the policy of Amherst County to exercise them to the maximum extent when the issue is protection of the privacy and safety of our citizens and staff, but otherwise the custodian of the documents has the discretion to exercise them flexibly in accordance with the best interests of the County and the public.

FOIA Fee Policy

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Citizen Rights & Responsibilities under Virginia Freedom of Information Act:

In accordance with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the County may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for requested records.  The County may not 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 County.  Any duplicating fee charged by the County 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 Virginia Code § 2.2-3704 (F).

  • If the County estimates 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.
  • As a general rule, the County will not charge for requests that total less than $50 in cost. If the cost is $50 or more, the requester will be billed for the entire amount.

 

  • If you owe the County from a previous FOIA request that has remained unpaid for more than 30 days, the County will require payment of the past-due bill before it will respond to your new FOIA request.

 

  • The County’s fees to respond to a FOIA request are as follows:

 

Copies of pages

$0.10 per page, plus Staff Time Fee, if any

Unlimited pages, electronic copy only

No charge per page; Staff Time Fee only, if any

Unlimited pages, on CD-Rom

$2.50 for CD-Rom plus Staff Time Fee, if any

Staff Time Fee, if research and copy time is thirty minutes or less

No fee

Staff Time Fee, if research and copy time exceeds thirty minutes

The hourly wage of the employee with the skills necessary to research and prepare records for release, for time in excess of the first half hour.  (No charge for first half hour of staff time.)

Postage

Calculated by the weight of the package to be mailed.