State employee e-mails are subject to Freedom of Information requests made by the public under Virginia’s open-government laws. The law also allows the costs of providing records to be passed along to the requester. But the e-mails have become so voluminous and cluttered that the costs to retrieve them have skyrocketed.
The problem came to light when requests were made recently for some Department of Environmental Quality e-mails. Virginia's Information Technology Agency stores but does not organize agency documents, according to FOIA Council Director Maria Everett.
The agency ultimately provided those emails later than the deadline required by law -- and at a cost of $34,000.
"With some work with the agency, it got down to $8,000," says Everett. "But my opinion at the time was $8,000 is a whole lot better than $34,000, but if you think you're passing that on to the requester, I think you've got another think coming."
Everett said the root cause has been organizational. "We're not organizing email," she says. "Somehow the skill sets we had in the paper world have not transferred over to the electronic world."
VITA has since advised agencies about electronic filing, but Everett said it's still a problem.