Slayton: FOIA -- It's the people's law

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act isn’t just for journalists — it’s for you, the people who live in the commonwealth.

It is true that reporters have not shied away from invoking FOIA to gain access to records that public bodies are otherwise reluctant to release — open records requests helped uncover a scandal involving former Gov. Bob McDonnell and a wealthy businessman that ultimately resulted in McDonnell’s conviction on corruption charges.

But as we embark on Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of access to public information and what it means to your community, it marks a good time to remember that FOIA (Virginia code section 2.2-3700) is also for the citizens, and they have the power to hold their governments accountable.

As it states in the FOIA preamble: “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 taken at any level of government.”

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Sunshine Week traces its history to 2002 when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create new exemptions to that state’s public records law.

The first Sunshine Week was held in March 2005 by the American Society of News Editors using an inaugural grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It is held annually in mid-March to coincide with James Madison’s birthday on March 16.

Each year, the purpose is to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. This week is about empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels.

Virginia’s FOIA law is currently being studied by the Freedom of Information Advisory Council to determine which of the 170-plus meeting and record exemptions are needed. The hope is a rewritten FOIA law with far fewer exemptions will also be easier for the public to read and understand without having to consult with a lawyer.

Even as the study is ongoing, it did not prevent more exemptions from being created during the 2015 General Assembly session. Some, such as a bill that would have created a meeting exemption for the discussion of gang-related activities, was sent to the FOIA Council for further study.

Others, such as a record and meeting exemption for cybersecurity, were approved by the House of Delegates and the Senate. They now await the signature of Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

One of the biggest wins for open government advocates came when the House defeated Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw’s bill that would have made the drugs (and the pharmacy compounding them) used in lethal injection executions exempt from disclosure under FOIA.

Regardless of your belief in the death penalty, Virginia taxpayers, who are footing the bill for all executions, should know how, and with whom, their tax dollars are being spent.

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To make sunshine laws effective, it is up to the citizenry to hold their governments accountable. Even having FOIA in the state code doesn’t prevent elected officials from trying to hide their actions — or the reasoning behind them.

Everything is presumed public and FOIA gives you the right to obtain government information.

The law itself states that “the provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.”

This law allows you to inspect records and attend meetings of the state and its political subdivisions, such as county and city governments, unless the FOIA or other state law permits secrecy.

That’s why it is incumbent upon the public to know their rights under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act and to challenge their elected officials to operate as transparently as possible.

After all, sunshine is the best remedy for bad government.

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