A few weeks ago in a small town in Western Virginia, a Roanoke lawyer argued against the disclosure of evidence to the public because it might harm the investigation.
“I represent the sheriff in this matter,” he told the circuit judge. “Our goal here is to disclose as little (information) as possible.”
His quote is an example of a culture of secrecy in Virginia that too often denies the public access to information gathered at public expense and permeates government at all levels.
The Daily Press Media Group in 2014 filed hundreds of requests under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act seeking access to public records in the Hampton Roads area. Some of those requests started as simple questions, but local officials demanded that our reporters file formal requests for records, then said they would charge hundreds of dollars for the information, fees they insisted were reasonable.
That speaks to the attitude that’s a problem. Even more disturbing is what reporters across the state see every day:
• Meetings of elected and appointed public bodies being closed without properly disclosing reasons why;
• Requests for public records being refused, even when their release is supported by such groups as the Freedom of Information Advisory Council;
• Public officials using FOIA to deny access when the law actually gives them an option to divulge it;
• The death in the dark of 740 bills introduced in the 2014 session of the Virginia General Assembly without a single vote for or against;
• Crack-of-dawn meetings of General Assembly subcommittees with less than a day’s notice, routinely adding or dropping bills.
These and other public access challenges have changed daily life in our newsroom. Conversations about a response or lack of response to a public records access request have become a part of our work-a-day lives.
On occasion, we are told that records will cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to obtain, giving rise to suspicions that agencies use the “reasonable fee” stipulation of FOIA to deny access.
Reporters sometimes say requests aren’t promptly answered or that requests are denied for technical reasons unrelated to the law. And then, of course, there are meetings closed for questionable reasons and reasons that fail to meet the FOIA standard.
As newspapers confront challenging economic times and government officials are more concerned with privacy than transparency, the lack of commitment to the state’s FOIA law seems all too commonplace. That’s why, when in April I was chosen president-elect of the Virginia Press Association, I asked the VPA Board of Directors to renew their commitment to our role as the watchdog of local government agencies.
Never has there been a more crucial time for that commitment. For the next two years, a statewide advisory council is meeting to discuss the FOIA and consider changes. Those who believe in government transparency beyond the political stump need to advocate for constructive change, change that will bring more, not less, public access to citizens of the commonwealth.
I recently attended one of the advisory council meetings with veteran Daily Press reporter Dave Ress, who has fought for records and access to meetings over the years. Open government advocates were represented at the meeting by a handful of folks, including VPA’s Executive Director Ginger Stanley and Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
Others at the table were government officials from every imaginable agency, and the odds left me feeling more than a little concerned about the process.
I returned to my newsroom feeling a little like I’d been asleep at the wheel, and wondered how I would live up to the challenge I delivered at the VPA board meeting in April. A few days later, I called a group of newsroom leaders together to discuss putting action behind my words. Here’s what we’re going to do:
The Daily Press Media Group is committed to covering FOIA Advisory Council meetings. More importantly, we are willing to share those stories with every Virginia news organization that wants to publish them.
Here’s what you can do: We want to hear your stories, what the government agencies you cover are doing to deny public access. We want you to share your public record and open meetings challenges with Dave Ress, who can be reached at email@example.com or by phoning (757) 247-4535 or (757) 880-9194. He will share those concerns with advisory council members.
At a recent meeting of the editorial board at the Daily Press, we were reminded by our guests that Virginia was the birthplace of this great nation. The preamble to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which is posted on a wall in our newsroom, says it all: “The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action at any level of government.”
Together, we can hold ourselves and public officials to that promise.
Marisa Porto is the vice president of content for the Daily Press in Newport News. She will become president of the Virginia Press Association Board of Directors effective July 1. She is also a board member of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.