In Virginia, if you want to know what the State Police found investigating the worst mass murder in U.S. history, or what the consultants Hampton taxpayers hired to look into a proposed aquatics center found, or what Newport News council members had to say about the city manager’s performance last year, you’re out of luck.
If you were a parent up in Staunton wondering about the financial management that allowed a school bookkeeper to embezzle thousands from an account holding student-raised funds for extracurricular activities, too bad.
Wondering what happened when that Winchester council member was charged with illegally shooting a gun, or the costs Richmond thinks it needs to cover with higher water and sewer bills? Well, you get the picture.
The commonwealth is at a crossroads when it comes to the relationship between citizens and their government.
In 2014, the General Assembly ordered the Freedom of Information Advisory Council to conduct a three-year review of the Freedom of Information Act, the open government statute which defines the critical relationship between citizens and their government.
The council has since seemed reluctant to consider any significant changes. And there is now reason to fear that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to recast the commonwealth’s approach to government transparency could be squandered without citizen intervention.
Consider the following:
Out of 48 specific reasons public officials can cite when they chose to keep Virginians from seeing public records, the council’s work group said 38 should stand.
It is still mulling how to handle records that businesses give governments when they seek favors. In just one case, it acted to make clear that an exemption should not be used, as it has been, to keep secret records that officials are required to release.
Of the 24 reasons public officials can cite for their overused option of meeting behind closed doors, the working group recommends letting stand 18. It is eliminating an exemption for an entity that never existed. It is studying the rest.
And when asked to consider a mechanism for punishing those who willfully violate the law, the council dismissed the proposal out-of-hand. Our experience tells us that there must be criminal penalty to enforce compliance, as many other states use in their open government laws.
The FOIA council is a state agency that effectively serves as the point of contact for inquires about the commonwealth’s open government laws. It answers questions, issues advisory opinions and, since last year, has been conducting a thorough review of the law.
But we are concerned that the 12-member board leans too heavily toward public officials and lacks strong advocates for openness. We worry that its members, though well-intentioned public servants, are informed by their experience in government.
They do not know the frustration of seeing officials in Isle of Wight County, York County and Poquoson give vague reasons for closing the door on the public time and time again. They have never tried to pry documents out of city halls in Newport News or Hampton, or hit a series of dead ends in trying to determine how one construction bid was selected over others.
Virginia’s FOIA needs to be broader. It should be easier for citizens to use and harder for officials to violate. And it must live up to the expectation in its preamble that “the affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy.”
But to achieve that, we need your help.
The council will gather this week in Richmond, its first meeting since May and its only one until September. It will review minutes from its subcommittees for records and meetings, which are hashing through the minutia of the law’s exemptions.
If you believe that a transparent government is one that best serves the people, and that Virginia would better for having open government laws that honor the people’s right to know, then we urge you to contact the council, as well as its members, and say precisely that.
Here is that information:
Sen. Richard H. Stuart, a Republican representing District 28, can be reached at 804-698-7528 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Del. James M. LeMunyon, a Republican representing District 67, can be reached at 804-698-1067 and DelJLeMunyon@house.virginia.gov.
Christopher Ashby is a lawyer in Alexandria. He can be reached at 202-281-5463 and Chris@Ashby-Law.com.
John G. Selph is a lawyer in Richmond who can be reached at 804-270-0791.
Timothy Oksman formerly served as city attorney in Portsmouth and now serves as opinions counsel in the Office of the Attorney General. He can be reached at 804-786-1861 and email@example.com.
Stephanie Hamlett is the executive director of the Virginia Resources Authority, the agency which oversees bond and loans to municipal governments through the state. She can be reached at 804-616-3448.
Edward Jones is a former editor of The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg. He now serves as secretary and chief of staff for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. He can be reached at 800-346-2373 ext. 1030 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sandra G. Treadway serves as the librarian of Virginia, leading the state repository for the commonwealth’s extensive collection of books, manuscripts and official records. She can be reached at 804-692-3535 and email@example.com.
Forrest M. “Frosty” Landon was executive editor of the Roanoke Times and a driving force in the creation of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. He can be contacted at 540-354-8918.
Robert L. Tavenner is the director of the Division of Legislative Services, the state entity which assists lawmakers in the drafting of legislation, among other duties. He can be reached at 804-786-3591 ext. 233 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathleen Dooley serves as the Fredericksburg city attorney. She can be reached at 540-372-1020 and email@example.com.
Marisa J. Porto is the vice president for content at the Daily Press Media Group and a member of this editorial board. She can be reached at 757-247-4660 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Editorial by the Newport News Daily Press