COVID-19 Impact on Public Requests & FOIA's in the State and Local Market
Published: April 07, 2020
Public records and open meetings laws — also called freedom of information laws, sunshine acts, or open records laws — are the primary legal means for the public to seek information about the workings of the executive branch of federal, state, and local governments. GovWin utilizes open requests and FOIA requests heavily to obtain procurement and contract award details.
In response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels are taking emergency steps to combat the spread of the virus. With the shift by many agencies to a work-from-home model, in order to promote social distancing, many SLED governments are relaxing are restricting open requests and FOIA law during the COVID-19 pandemic. With many documents and materials not accessible from public records officers’ homes and offices on lockdown, governments are delaying or putting requests indefinitely on hold. Contractors who utilize FOIA requests as a form of competitive intelligence are beginning to feel the pain of delays and lack of responses to requests.
Recently, Michigan Governor Whitmer signed an executive order to relax Michigan’s FOIA laws. In Hawaii, Governor Ige issued an supplemental emergency proclamation as well that suspended the States Sunshine laws. Washington, D.C., city council has gone further, passing emergency legislation that, among other measures, explicitly permits delaying all FOI requests until the district declares the crisis over.
Other agencies, including the Fresno, California, city government; the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Department of General Services have similarly notified requesters that responses to their requests are on hold indefinitely due to the country’s public health crisis. The New York State Homes & Community Renewal (NYSHCR) division reported that in light of New York State’s reduction in workforce as part of the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be delays in response to FOIL requests.
The Reporters Committee is crowdsourcing a database of impacts across the country, with updates from 75 agencies in 28 states thus far.
While Governments are still figuring out the new norm and how to adjust to new ways of running government operations, government agencies should take steps to encourage the submission of electronic records requests, including by email. Under state public records laws, agencies may also be required to accept electronic requests. New York, for example, generally requires agencies to accept requests via email. It is incumbent upon government entities in such situations to provide their employees and contractors the necessary tools and resources to continue processing records requests.