Strengthen open government laws

Published 9:48 pm Thursday, July 30, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this editorial originally appeared in the Daily Press. Marisa Porto, vice president of content for Daily Press Media Group, is the president of the Virginia Press Association.

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’d like to know about the discussion that took place in support of a 14-percent raise for the former city manager, too bad.

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Wondering about 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 that 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.

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 the 12-member board leans 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 Suffolk, 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.”