Albemarle fills records request; ordinance waiving statutory deadline remains

Albemarle County Public Schools has filled Charlottesville Tomorrow’s requests for public records related to its school reopening plans — about two weeks after the state mandated deadline to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests.

The documents came a week after the University of Virginia’s First Amendment Clinic sent the school division a letter asking them to adhere to the state law.

“The statutory timeline for responding to [the Virginia Freedom of Information Act] requests is clear,” the letter, sent July. 29 on behalf of Charlottesville Tomorrow, said. “Any public body must respond within five work-days of receiving a request.”

The Albemarle school division said it did not need to meet the statutory FOIA deadline because the county’s Board of Supervisors “extended indefinitely” the deadline in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The purpose for the provision regarding responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act was to ensure that the County was not in violation of the Act, and the protections it affords for certain records, in circumstances when it may have been impossible, unsafe, or unlawful for County employees to come into the County’s buildings to search for paper records in response to a Freedom of Information Act request during the COVID-19 disaster,” County Attorney Greg Kamptner said in an email explaining the ordinance last month.

The filled requests — which included emails and written reopening plans — were all electronic documents.

The ordinance suspending FOIA deadlines in the county still stands.

The Freedom of Information Act’s purpose is to guarantee the public’s access to government records and meetings. Any citizen can use the act to request — and be granted — any record created by a public body, with some exceptions. This access ensures governments remain open to their citizens, and it gives those citizens a crucial tool to hold their government accountable.

Without response deadlines, there is nothing to guarantee a records request will be filled.

According to UVA’s First Amendment Clinic, a locality’s statutory VFOIA obligations “cannot be waived by an emergency ordinance.”

“There are no emergency exceptions in VFOIA that permit a public body to modify the time by which it must reply to VFOIA requests,” the clinic said in its letter to Albemarle County Public Schools.

All state public bodies and the majority of localities in Virginia — including the city of Charlottesville — continue to meet FOIA deadlines.