My first job at a daily newspaper, which I started 12 years ago this month in the swamps of south Louisiana, may have spoiled me as far as what to expect from public records laws.
Louisiana, where I worked for five years and a place I dearly love, might not often be mistaken for a bastion of good government.
But in addition to (and perhaps because of) its long legacy of colorful and compromised politicians — from the Longs and Edwin Edwards to Ray Nagin and David Vitter — one thing that made it a great place to be a journalist was its expansive public records law, with provisions on immediacy, exceptions and cost that, while not perfect, greatly favor public disclosure.
It was quite a thing as a young reporter to march into the parish government, sheriff’s office or school system offices and request police reports, enrollment figures, budgets, resumes of candidates applying for government jobs and myriad other pieces of public information that had to be made available on the spot if they were readily accessible.
Regrettably, records laws in the states I have worked in since, including Virginia, have failed to match up.
You might not know that this has been Sunshine Week, a news industry initiative to promote the importance of access to public information.
But here in the Old Dominion we are surrounded by recent troubling examples of why the commonwealth could use a whole lot more luminosity and why more public officials need to be reminded of what the law says.
Let’s start with the superintendent and school board right here in the city of Richmond. Superintendent Jason Kamras decided a proposed budget he submitted to the board, which narrowly approved it late last month, didn’t have to be released to the public, even after the vote, the equivalent of spitting in the face of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
A narrow majority of the board went along with it.
“The only reason I did not immediately share this document after the board’s vote on Monday is that I had hoped to be able to inform central office employees about their status for next year in face-to-face meetings prior to the news becoming public. No one should learn about their future on TV or in the newspaper,” Kamras said.
The superintendent’s straw man leaves out that his administration has been planning the cuts for weeks, giving him plenty of time to inform those employees before presenting his plan to the board, when it should have also been made public.
(The school system did not respond to questions I posed on the legal justification for withholding the budget)
Other examples abound:
Last year, Charlottesville’s City Council belatedly created a policy they were supposed to have had in place for years governing when members can phone in to participate in council meetings.
“The overall issue to me is that this law has been on the books for four years. So how did Charlottesville miss it?” Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and a regular Mercury columnist, told The Daily Progress.
Around the same time, Charlottesville city government also ran afoul of the FOIA when it initially refused to release a portion of an acting city manager’s contract.
Supervisors in Mathews County may have failed to properly notice an emergency meeting in February in which they fired the county attorney.
Pittsylvania County officials are accused of violating FOIA by a former social services director.
A journalist was told by Arlington County officials that the county was reviewing its longstanding practice of allowing the public to view permits and site plans after interest surged in a building permit for one of the buildings Amazon is considering leasing as part of its new headquarters.
And last year, after a tip from a reader and blogger, I stumbled across a stunning problem at the Library of Virginia, which keeps records of past gubernatorial administrations. The library is still cataloging records from the Kaine administration, which could mean a delay of a decade or more to find out what the McDonnell and McAuliffe administrations might have been up to behind the scenes.
(Consider the fact that emails from the Kaine administration form the loathsome picture of the nexus between industry and environmental regulation in Virginia documented in retired UVA professor and former State Air Pollution Control Board member Vivian Thomson’s book “Climate of Capitulation.”)
A bill that would have sped up work on the backlog died when lawmakers couldn’t come up with the money, another sign that public access to information takes a backseat in Virginia.
And what’s worse, as The Virginian-Pilot noted, the legislature passed a bill allowing state officials to keep secret the names of anyone who wins a lottery prize larger than $10 million, never mind revelations by the newspaper that some lottery winners seem a little too lucky.
Add another exemption to the roughly 170 carve-outs in FOIA, which, many might be shocked to discover, extends to “working papers and correspondence” of a huge list of important state and local officials: including the Office of the Governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general; the members of the General Assembly, the Division of Legislative Services, the clerks of the House of Delegates or the Senate of Virginia, “the mayor or chief executive officer of any political subdivision of the commonwealth; or the president or other chief executive officer of any public institution of higher education in the commonwealth.”
However, there were a few bright spots from this year’s General Assembly session.
A bill by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, requires the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council to provide online FOIA training to local elected officials, which they are obligated to take once every two years while in office. (The five members of Richmond’s School Board who voted against allowing their constituents to see the budget should be first in line to sign up.)
The bill also eliminates the three-day notice requirement for an expedited hearing on a petition for mandamus or injunction when open meeting violations are alleged.
And Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, also successfully carried a bill to toughen penalties for public officials who alter or destroy “requested public records with the intention of avoiding the provisions of FOIA.”
There’s a common misconception, even among lawmakers, that freedom of information laws are for solely for reporters.
But nowhere that I’ve ever worked do journalists enjoy any public records privileges that don’t apply to everyone.
Do you want to find out how your local school system or police department is spending your tax money? Curious about whether a vote by your local county supervisor might be affected by his personal finances? Want to know what plans that developer who bought a big piece of property in your neighborhood has filed with the local government?
Regardless of ideology in these bitterly divided times, it’s in everyone’s best interest that government at all levels be as open and transparent as possible.
But it’s up to all of us to insist on better from Virginia and from the public officials who have custody over information that belongs to us.