VCOG's 2012 award winners
A state senator whose legislation set the stage for thousands of vital records in Virginia to be shaken loose; a citizens-group leader whose three-year battle over a wrongly withheld contract led to only the second known FOIA fee assessment; and a college newspaper whose FOIA-based reporting galvanized a campus community to put pressure on a powerful governing board.
All will receive an annual FOI award from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government for good works toward open government in the Commonwealth. The recipients will be honored at VCOG’s annual conference, Nov. 30, at the Craddock Terry Hotel & Event Center in Lynchburg.
SEN. HARRY BLEVINS, a Chesapeake Republican, tried in vain in the Summer of 2011 to get the Joint Commission on Health Care to revise the rules governing access to vital records. Despite overwhelming public support, especially from genealogists, the commission rejected most of the suggestions. Blevins introduced legislation in the 2012 legislature that mirrored the commission’s recommendation, but midway through the session he worked out a compromise with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Library of Virginia that incorporated many of the earlier rejected ideas.
As passed, the legislation now allows death, marriage, divorce or annulment records to be released after 25 years instead of 50, and the original records -- plus birth records -- will be turned over to the Library of Virginia after they are released to the public. Significantly, the bill also directs the State Registrar to contract with a third-party vendor to create a database of digitized records that the Library of Virginia will be able to link to.
The staff of the CAVALIER DAILY, the student paper at the University of Virginia, was quick to file FOIA requests for emails and records that would help shed light on the abrupt resignation of the school’s president forced by just a small number of members on the powerful Board of Visitors. The emails became the “smoking gun” that brought the campus to a frenzy of protest and intensified the political pressure that forced the Board into retreat.
The paper’s coverage of open meetings issues and its reliance on public records -- primary source materials -- was accessible and easily understood by students, and may have done the most toward advance their knowledge and appreciation of open government than any political science course ever could have.
VERNON KELLEY AND THE CONCERNED CITIZENS OF GILES COUNTY sued the town of Glen Lyn in Giles County when it was discovered that records they were supposed to have received in a FOIA request a few years earlier were improperly withheld. The case went forward on both the merits and on the question of whether the statute of limitations had already run -- the town said they should have sued when they were denied the records; the citizens said they couldn’t have sued then because they didn’t know the contract was wrongly withheld at the time.
The case resulted in a win for the plaintiffs and the judge imposed fines against the town, something that has been known to happen only one other time in Virginia FOIA litigation.
The VCOG annual conference is open to the public. Register online at http://www.opengovva.org/articles-other/1636-paypal-test. Please contact Megan Rhyne at VCOG for additional information on or questions about this year’s award winners. 540-353-VCOG or
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