Waive the FOIA fees in an election year?

Published 5:48 pm Tuesday, September 10, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

A well-known Isle of Wight County government detractor used the threat of an upcoming election to try and get a lengthy Freedom of Information Act request filled without having to pay for it.

Herb DeGroft specifically targeted Isle of Wight County School Board Chairperson Vicky Hulick with his request, stating, ”Since this is an election year, will you Madame Chair provide me the information free of charge or will you try and keep the information from me by charging an excessive fee? Time will tell,” wrote DeGroft.

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“Since this is an election year” and “Time will tell” were scratched out in a copy of the request that DeGroft provided to The Smithfield Times, but were readable. 

Hulick is up for re-election in November and is being challenged by former Smithfield High School Athletic Director, Lawrence Rotruck. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Hulick passed the eight-page request for information on to school administration to gather the requested material. Many of the questions were financial in nature. 

According to the state FOIA statute, records requests are to be directed to the custodian of the records, and public bodies are not required to create a new record if it does not already exist. 

When the information was gathered, the division sent DeGroft a bill for $120, which included the cost of copies and search time.

DeGroft was told he could pick up the materials at the School Board office.

That was not the answer DeGroft wanted. He sent Hulick an email stating that he asked her directly so that he wouldn’t have to pay for the material. He also wanted to come by her house and pick up the material, or failing that, suggested she could take it to his house or meet for “coffee and a pastry.” 

“As an elected official who has requests made of them, as the people’s elected representative, it is your responsibility to get the citizen the requested info however you accomplish that for the citizen. And, I know you as a Board member, does (sic) not have to pay for the administration to work for you in gathering data for you, for whatever purpose, especially in your role as Bd. Chwmn. (sic),” wrote DeGroft in the email. 

Isle of Wight County schools have long charged for FOIA requests, including billing The Smithfield Times, whenever staff had to find and make copies of documents. Virginia’s FOIA law allows for government entities to charge a reasonable fee for labor and copying costs. 

FOIA also states that an individual making a records request can view the records during the regular office hours of the custodian of the records — in this case, the school administrative offices. 

“While there may be times when it makes sense for a board chairman to be the person who searches for and supplies the requested records, such as when someone has requested the chairman’s email messages on a topic of public business and the chairman is the one with the necessary password to access those emails, there are often reasons why someone else would be a more appropriate party to process a FOIA request.  I do not know of any other provision of law that requires a school board chairman to handle FOIA requests personally,” said Alan Gernhardt, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. 

Meanwhile, Hulick said she makes a point of being available to residents and parents with questions — within reason.

DeGroft’s request had more than 20 detailed questions on a variety of subjects.  

Hulick said that as a School Board member, she spends many hours a week attending to School Board duties, as well as talking on the phone to parents and others trying to resolve issues they have in the schools. 

“I spend hours on the phone with people,” said Hulick, adding that she’s always willing to help someone obtain information, if she happens to have it handy. If not, she refers them to administrators. 

Hulick said a good deal of information can be found on the division’s website, such as the budget and policies, and the division has made an effort to have documents easily accessible. 

However, if a voluminous FOIA request requires staff to stop their normal duties to fulfill it, the division is going to charge for that additional strain on the system, said Hulick.

DeGroft is known for stirring the pot, so to speak. He is a former School Board member who decided not to run for reelection in 2013 due to a controversy over his sending of racist emails concerning former First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as other items. Residents attempted to have the Circuit Court remove him from office, but that effort failed. 

Former School Superintendent Michael McPherson sued DeGroft for defamation over DeGroft’s penchant for publicly criticizing the superintendent through flyers, cartoons, messages and statements. McPherson asked for $2.4 million in damages and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount. 

During the 2016 election, DeGroft got into a physical fight with another resident over his signs condemning former Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and vice presidential candidate and former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. Some of the signs were posted at a polling place. Both men filed charges for assault and battery against each other, but the case was eventually dismissed. 

FOIA requests target Hulick

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Freedom of Information Act requests and statements submitted by two former schools employees bear similarities to Herb DeGroft’s FOIA request — and all specifically target School Board Chairperson Vicky Hulick.

All three sets of statements and requests are dated Aug. 8, the date of the Isle of Wight County School Board meeting. 

The other statements and questions came from Lawrence Rotruck and Katie Lemon, and the trio spoke at the Aug. 8 meeting.  

Rotruck abruptly resigned earlier this year as athletic director after the opening of the field house at Smithfield High School. Lemon had worked as a teacher in the Isle of Wight County school division. 

Rotruck is challenging incumbent Vicky Hulick for the Newport District seat on the School Board. Lemon is a strong supporter of Rotruck, as evidenced by her Facebook page. 

DeGroft said he’s given Rotruck some pointers on campaigning based on his own experience, such as the majority of the Board working for “their employee” (Superintendent Jim Thornton) and not holding him accountable.

“Needless to say, we have mutual concerns about majority of this presently constituted school bd (sic) … Vicky (Hulick) talks a good game but actions speak louder than words,” said DeGroft in an email. 

Hulick said that her job as Board chairman includes getting the agenda ready and running meetings. She said she has no more power than any of the other four School Board members. 

Hulick also pointed out that since she has been on the Board, as well as her fellow members, the schools now have a successful Career and Technical Education program and have implemented an individualized reading program for all students struggling with reading, as well as coding classes in all the schools. The schools have new equipment, such as laser printers and 3D printers that it didn’t have before and a maintenance program that is being implemented, she said. 

On top of that Hulick said she regularly attends community meetings, school events, government meetings and takes phone calls. 

“I can’t make everything,  but I try to make all I can. You will see I’m all action,” said Hulick.

Rotruck’s typed request to the School Board was directed at Hulick, who he repeatedly refers to a “Madame Chair.” DeGroft’s FOIA also refers to Hulick as “Madame Chair” on at least one occasion, as does Lemon’s statement. 

Lemon and DeGroft requested information specifically from Hulick. 

When asked about the similarities in the three FOIA requests, DeGroft replied, “Anything wrong with referencing others thoughts/issues on a common concern when I make a public statement?”

All three requests use san serif type, although DeGroft’s has many instances where he scratched out words and made handwritten replacements. DeGroft also likes to use different colored highlighters to emphasize a point. 

DeGroft is well-known for submitting documents to various county boards that have handwritten notes, rather than typed. 

DeGroft’s FOIA request also included material that is in his customary style — clipped and copied newspaper articles and documents with questions and comments written by hand in the margins. 

Rotruck’s and DeGroft’s requests both reference the First Amendment.

All three requests include intricate, detailed and lengthy questions about various items, mostly relating to financial matters.  {/mprestriction}