Undoubtedly this will sound harsh. Cold. But here it is:
I don't care if there's going to be a new road running through your neighborhood. It doesn't matter to me if your child is redistricted to go to a new school. I don't give a hoot whether the community center is repurposed.
Well, thanks a lot, Ms. Rhyne. Don't let that door hit you on the way out.
Wait! Please. Let me explain.
You see, my job at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government is to champion the public's right to know. It is to ensure that Virginians have access to their government's records and meetings with as few obstacles as possible.
When people come to me with questions about FOIA or access, I try to stick to those specific questions without venturing into the underlying situation or incident that led to the question. My answer to a citizen's FOIA question is not based on whether I agree or disagree with whatever side a citizen is taking on an issue.
For example, say someone doesn't want the new road running though his neighborhood. He wants records that are clearly exempt from FOIA under, say, the attorney work-product exemption. Say a developer who does want the new road wants those same records. My answer would be the same for both requesters: the records can be withheld under the work-product exemption.
Or, if the school board did not follow the proper notice procedures for a meeting, then that fact should be raised to both proponents of the school closure and the opponents.
It has to be like that. The answer to an access question can't be based on my own personal feelings or opinions, just as the decision to release/withhold records requested under FOIA should not be based on the feelings or opinions of government officials. There's no way I can know the history, context, the people or the information that would be necessary for me to take an informed stand on a specific issue.
The VCOG mission statement specifically states that we are nonpartisan. We don't favor the positions of state Republicans or Democrats, either, except when one side or the other is championing open government. We don't favor the positions or ideologies of local politicians, except when they are advocating on behalf of the citizens' right to know.
Unfortunately, there are folks out there who don't make this distinction. They have accused me of taking sides on issues, or of supporting specific individuals over others. For instance, when I have supported a board member's decision not to certify a closed meeting, it has to do with whether the closed-meeting exemption properly applies, not with whether I agree with that member's position on the issue they discussed in closed session.
Of course I have my own opinions, beliefs and values. But I'm not much use to the citizens -- or media or government officials -- in this Commonwealth if I can't put those opinions aside to address the access questions neutrally.
Information is itself neutral. A record is merely the reflection of a statement, fact, observation at that point in time. By itself, the record may be meaningless. When put in one context, it may point to one conclusion; in another context, it may point to another conclusion. And people may disagree on what conclusion it does point to.
The whole point of open government is for citizens to have access to information so that they may make an informed choice. It doesn't matter what that choice is. What matters is that they have the information and the tools they need to make a choice, ANY choice.
That's democracy in action. And that I DO care about.