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The Right Note: Transparency Check

by Mark Kelly March 22, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

The Washington Post, referred to by one commenter as the “Amazon Post,” failed to get any answers about the offer made to attract the new Amazon HQ to Arlington. The County denied the FOIA request and said the requested information was not subject to disclosure.

With the latest back and forth, there are two questions that come to mind for me:

  1. Is Arlington’s commitment to transparency and accountability good enough?

Arlington does have a robust website where you can find a good deal of information about the county. We have an independent auditor now who reports to the County Board. A study of overtime at our emergency communications center was just released and is valuable information.

However, the auditor’s agenda is far less than robust with no real financial resources on the way to make it better. According to the proposed budget offered by the County Manager, there will be no new personnel to expand the scope of work in this office.

With $1 million dog parks and bus stops in our recent past, the $11,000 proposed increase demonstrates there is no commitment to making this office effective in more quickly evaluating how our $1.3 billion annual budget is spent.

  1. Why does it cost so much to make a FOIA request?

According to those asking for more information about the Amazon deal, the FOIA request would have cost anywhere from $319.50 to over $1,000.

First, the county should explain this cost quote discrepancy. Certainly county policy is not to discourage a regular Arlington resident from filing a FOIA request by quoting a higher potential cost than it would to a member of the media?

A few years ago, the County attempted to charge residents $2,858 for a FOIA request on the Columbia Pike streetcar project. The quote did not appear to be in line with what was allowable under Virginia law because county staff was attempting to charge for work done by consultants.

Whether it’s $300 or almost $3,000, it seems to be a lot of money to receive information that already exists. This is particularly true since so much of the information is already available in electronic form and could be produced with a few mouse clicks on a computer.

Gone are the days where you would have to pay a staff member to stand at a copy machine or scanner in order to reproduce information. The County Board should explore whether Virginia law allows it to direct county staff to lower the cost barrier for FOIA requests.

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