Daily Press (Sunday)

Toward greater openness

Let this legislativ­e session advance the cause of government transparen­cy


If Virginians should have one wish for the General Assembly session set to convene on Wednesday, it’s that lawmakers use this opportunit­y to take a strong stance in defense of government transparen­cy and the public’s right to know.

Though commonweal­th law requires that most documents and meetings be available to citizens, there remain too many exceptions to that noble principle — and too many in elected office eager to exploit them. That can end if lawmakers take steps to strengthen Virginia’s Freedom of Informatio­n Act by narrowing its most-abused loopholes and adding legal consequenc­es for willful or egregious violations.

It is little surprise that in the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, state law is unequivoca­l in its commitment to transparen­cy in the public sector.

“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,” the preamble to the Virginia FOIA reads.

While allowing for officials to cite specific exemptions as to why documents should be withheld or meetings closed to the public, the law empowers citizens to play an active role in the governance of their commonweal­th and their communitie­s. It encourages oversight and accountabi­lity, and deters corruption and malfeasanc­e.

The law is typically considered a tool for journalist­s, who frequently use FOIA requests to pry loose documents from government files and pull up the shades on public meetings to give citizens full view of the proceeding­s. But it’s more accurately a tool for citizens: Anyone with the time and, usually, a few dollars can file a request or challenge a ruling under its provisions.

That’s a critical distinctio­n, especially when discussing potential legislativ­e changes to FOIA. Every time lawmakers carve out a new exemption in FOIA, it tips the balance away from the public’s right to know what their government is doing on their behalf.

The legislatur­e’s record in recent years is mixed. For instance, lawmakers passed a law in 2021 that narrowed an exemption regarding closed criminal investigat­ion files, meaning the public would have greater access to them, only to reverse themselves a year later and effectivel­y repeal it.

Most changes have been modest — a few words here, a minor tweak there — rather than tackling the most abused loopholes, such as the personnel exemption that some officials use to redact any personal informatio­n whatsoever from public documents.

Another is the so-called “working papers” exemption that shields the correspond­ences and notes for a host of public officials; the Youngkin administra­tion used this in 2021 to conceal submission­s to his teacher snitch line.

The Pilot and Daily Press joined a coalition of media groups in a 2022 lawsuit that produced a small portion of those submission­s, a far cry from what Virginians deserved to know about the governor’s scheme.

It’s important to note that use of those exemptions is voluntary, not mandatory. Officials have the ability to make available nearly any record they choose rather than hide behind a legal loophole.

But lawmakers can change that, by adopting legislatio­n that narrows those exemptions to foster greater openness. They could also add civil or criminal penalties for violations of the law’s provisions. Many other states, including Georgia, Colorado and Alaska, impose fines and even jail time on officials who fail to uphold the law

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government maintains a legislativ­e tracker throughout the session for all FOIA-related bills at opengovva.org/vcog2024-legislativ­e-bill-chart, which is a handy tool for citizens passionate about transparen­cy in government to follow developmen­ts in Richmond and make their voices heard.

Strengthen­ing FOIA to enable greater public access and accountabi­lity is something all Virginians, and their elected representa­tives in Richmond, should support. Let this be the year that lawmakers take action to make our government more transparen­t to those it means to serve.

Disclosure: Opinion Editor Brian Colligan serves on the Virginia Coalition for Open Government Board of Directors.

 ?? STEVE HELBER/AP ?? Gov. Glenn Youngkin, center, arrives to deliver his State of the Commonweal­th address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly in the House chambers at the Capitol on Jan. 17, 2022, in Richmond.
STEVE HELBER/AP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, center, arrives to deliver his State of the Commonweal­th address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly in the House chambers at the Capitol on Jan. 17, 2022, in Richmond.

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