CHESTERFIELD, Va. – Three words caught Brenda Stewart's attention: "by private plane."
When she read that phrase in her local newspaper — describing how Chesterfield County Administrator Lane Ramsey broke off a vacation and came home because a county official was arrested for sex crimes — Stewart couldn't help but wonder how much the plane ride cost.
An open records request followed, and she soon discovered that the county paid more than $18,000 for the private charter from Kansas to Virginia.
"Even I did not have an idea it would be that expensive," Stewart said. Ramsey has since reimbursed the county for the flight, plus interest.
Stewart, 62, a retired federal worker, is one of many citizens who have used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover what government officials wish would stay buried in stacks of expense sheets and legal documents.
"You cannot hold officials accountable unless the public is aware of what they're doing," Stewart said.
Stewart makes it her business to know what her local officials are doing, gathering volumes of documents on how taxpayer dollars are spent and attending most board of supervisors, school board and planning commission meetings in this Richmond suburb.
She got involved in county issues after retiring from the Department of Defense in 1998.
Her neighbors asked her to join their fight against a subdivision proposed for their community. From there, they took on a special events business in the neighborhood. Then it was fighting against a plan to build two county high schools, battling with a telecommunications company installing fiber optic lines on private property, and arguing against government use of eminent domain to seize property for private development.
"Those of us who send our taxes to government at any level — local, state or national — have a right to expect responsible spending of our money," she said. "I don't believe we're getting that in many cases."
In 2004, Lee and Paulette Albright found improper use of state-issued credit cards — including $12,000 for an African safari — after they sought records on why the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries ended public tours at a fish hatchery near their Nelson County farm. Two agency officials resigned over the scandal.
Nancy Frantel, a substitute teacher and former Walt Disney World manager, had environmental concerns about a subdivision proposed in Chesterfield County. A few hours after requesting records from the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, she had information showing hundreds of Civil War-era mines underneath the site where more than 100 homes would be built.
Frantel lobbied for legislation requiring developers or homeowners to disclose if homes are built on abandoned mine sites. The General Assembly passed the bill this month and sent it to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
"It's a matter of being put in a position where you get a feeling that something's not quite right and, as a normal citizen, just saying, 'Let me look into this,' and then you discover there's so much more than you ever imagined," Frantel said.
Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said he wished more citizens took advantage of their right to review public records.
"A lot of citizens just don't know there is a Freedom of Information Act and don't need to know it until they get interested in a zoning issue down the street or a change of school attendance lines or something as mundane as proposed increases in garbage fees," Landon said.
Stewart said she's probably spent thousands of hours working on her projects, but it's her way of giving back to the community where her family has lived for generations.
"We ordinary citizens do have a role to play," Stewart said. "While individually it isn't a big role, if many of us get together and do our little bit, we can make a difference."