2016 open government award winners
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government is pleased to announce the winners of its 2016 open government awards. The awards are given to individuals or organizations who have made use of public information laws to keep government accountable and to inform their fellow citizens.
Professor Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech is this year’s Laurence E. Richardson citizen award winner; Sarah Kleiner and Katy Evans of the Richmond Times-Dispatch will receive the media award; and Arlington County will receive the award for government.
Edwards rose to national prominence a decade ago when he took on the Centers for Disease Control over Washington’s contaminated water system. In 2015, residents of Flint, Michigan, contacted Edwards asking for his help with water quality problems in their city. Mostly using his own money, Edwards filed Freedom of Information Act requests in Michigan for documents and emails to find out what state and city officials knew and when. Edwards and his team posted the records he received, which eventually prompted the Michigan governor to declare a state of emergency. Criminal charges were filed against several officials and remedial efforts are ongoing. Edwards and his team have continued to monitor the city’s water supply.
If the parties had been reversed and Edwards had been a professor at Michigan State researching water quality issues in Virginia, his request could have been denied since Virginia’s FOIA is one of the few open records laws in the country to limit requests to state citizens only.
The citizen award is named after Laurence E. Richardson, a longtime Charlottesville broadcaster and founding director of VCOG who died in 1999.
Kleiner and Evans are being recognized for the number-crunching research they did from records received via FOIA from the Department of Corrections and the State Compensation Board that showed the Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority had an inmate death rate of nearly nine times the state average for local and regional jails, and nearly three times more than the next highest jail. The work was prompted by the death of Henry Stewart at the HJJR in August, which came almost exactly a year after Jamycheal Mitchell, a mentally ill man arrested for shoplifting $5 in junk food, died from neglect while in the HJJR. Both men had been arrested but had not yet been tried. Not long after the reporters’ story, the HRRJ superintendent resigned and his replacement pledged to run a more transparent facility.
Arlington County will receive this year’s award for its creation of an online repository of records supplied in response to requests under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. When it was launched in June of this year, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz said, “My overarching goal is to increase government transparency. This is one simple way that we can share information that we have already collected … which already has some interest from the community.”
A link to the repository is included on the county’s newly reconfigured FOIA request portal and has, to date, posted 47 records sets, from building permits and zoning enforcement reports, to annual employee wages and a contract between the Arlington sheriff’s office with the company it hired to provide medical services to the local jail.
All recipients will be recognized at VCOG’s annual conference, Dec. 8, at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange. Visit VCOG’s website (http://www.opengovva.org/access-2016-panels-panelists-and-sponsors) for details.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government engages citizens to monitor the actions of their state and local governments as part of the democratic process. The coalition is a non-profit, non-partisan membership organization that presses for access to public records, meetings and judicial proceedings.