Electronic filing increases cost of FOIA requests in Virginia

A shift to electronic filing of financial disclosure forms for Virginia state employees and elected officials is impacting the cost of viewing those forms – and not in a good way. What once were freely viewed documents now come with a price tag; for example, while a 2008-2011 document search by the Daily Progress cost the newspaper nothing, Virginia officials say that viewing the same documents for 2012 would have cost $1200.

The problem is that, before the electronic filing regulations, the process to review the documents simply entailed Patrick Mayfield, the director of the state’s Conflict of Interest Office, calling the Library of Virginia to request a box of paper records for the requester to examine.

However, now that the documents are filed electronically, Mayfield has to download records and print them one-by-one from a state server. Mayfield says that Virginia can’t allow requesters to view these records electronically for security reasons. “That’s not acceptable,” said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville. “If you can look through a bin, why can’t you look through a computer?”

Technology should be helping make government documents more accessible and cheaper to own since there is no paper or ink required, rather than encumbering the request process. “It’s unfortunate that technology is limiting the public’s ability to see records that have been, in the past, open and accessible and now would be cost-prohibitive to most people,” Virginia Press Association Executive Director Ginger Stanley said.

Virginia’s situation brings to light the larger issue of how adapting regulations to new technology requires a thorough examination of the practical applications and resulting process changes.

What conflicts between adapting to technology advances and public access have you encountered?