A shift to electronic filing for financial disclosure forms for 25,000 state workers and elected officials means it could cost the public dramatically more to get the records.
Searching 2008 to 2011 disclosure records for 525 Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control employees, for example, cost The Daily Progress nothing. The price tag for accessing the same documents for 2012 would have been $1,200, according to state officials.
Last year’s shift to electronic filing leaves it to Patrick Mayfield, the sole employee and director of the state's Conflict of Interest Office, to download the forms one-by-one from a state server and then print them individually.
That’s not a problem for a few individual forms, Mayfield said. But time and money become factors when the request is to view forms for an entire agency, he said.
Reviewing the ABC disclosure forms up until 2011 — before the change — required only that Mayfield call the Library of Virginia and request of a box of paper records so that a reporter could examine the documents. The time needed to download the same records under the new system requires that the state pass on the cost, he said.
"The state's decision on how to manage their records should not create a cost passed on to consumers," said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. "Those documents exist so that people can see them."
For security reasons, the state could not accommodate a reporter's request to view the records electronically, Mayfield said.
"That's not acceptable," said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville. "If you can look through a bin, why can't you look through a computer?"
Mayfield called the request to review agency-wide data unprecedented. The office generally receives questions about individual filers, he said.
Any obstacle to access is unwelcome in a state with comparatively lax disclosure and ethics laws, Toscano said.
"A disclosure system relies on the virtue of the reporter, transparency and oversight," he said.
Mayfield said his office is tasked with maintaining the forms for five years, per state code. The documents are not audited, he said.
"We are behind the eight-ball a lot of times in Virginia, because we just collect data and that's it," said state Sen. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, whose district includes Charlottesville. "It's not reviewed, it's not audited, it’s just sitting there."
Deeds called the limitation caused by the switch to electronic filing "outrageous."
"If that's going to require a change in law, so be it," he said. "If the public doesn't have full access to those disclosure forms, they're not disclosure forms."
Virginia Press Association Executive Director Ginger Stanley said the change could be harmful to individuals lacking the resources of a media outlet.
"It's unfortunate that technology is limiting the public's ability to see records that have been, in the past, open and accessible and now would be cost-prohibitive to most people," she said.