2006 FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AWARDS
RICHMOND -- The City of Virginia Beach’s Freedom of Information Office has won the Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s 2006 public-sector award for outstanding contributions to Freedom of Information.
Also honored at the coalition’s ACCESS 2006 conference were press organizations that successfully challenged FOIA violations in Culpeper County and a Washington County citizen who fought for two years to force compliance with FOIA in her community.
Virginia Beach created the state’s first local-government FOI office in August 2003, following a FOIA battle involving the city, an animal rights group and a supposedly private non-profit group. Since then, the office has handled nearly 3,000 FOI requests, produced more than 46,000 requested documents and aided inspection of thousands more -- providing space for easy record review just a few steps from City Council’s meeting chambers.
The city worked with its internal auditor to calculate an actual five-cents-per-page cost for copying public records. As suggested by the Office of the state’s FOI Advisory Council, charges for document searches reflect the salary of the lowest-paid city employee capable of handing the assignment.
If a record is wrongly withheld, the incident is logged to help the city learn from its mistake, and the incident log is made available for public inspection. If the office is uncertain of a FOIA rule, it checks with the state’s FOI Council and heeds the advice of the state office.
A public notice board is on the wall outside the FOI office, providing notice of all meetings of the city’s more than 40 boards, commissions, committees and task forces.
Diane Johnson, a long-time resident of the Town of Glade Spring, received VCOG’s Laurence E. Richardson award for open-government contributions by individual citizens. The award honors the memory of a longtime Charlottesville broadcaster and VCOG founding director. Ms. Johnson sought town records involving sale or purchase, without public hearings, of a half-million-dollars worth of town property. She obtained a writ of mandamus requiring the town to produce public records and an injunction requiring proper notice of council meetings. Faced with threat of arrest when video-taping council meetings, she invoked FOIA’s explicit rules permitting citizens to record public meetings. She also helped teach other Glade Spring citizens about their access rights, helped form a civic club to promote voter registration and is currently planning a FOIA workshop for her town.
VCOG’s 2006 media award was presented to the Culpeper Citizen, Culpeper Star-Exponent, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star and the Virginia Press Association for their successful court fight to force FOIA compliance in Culpeper County. In a significant FOIA ruling, the Virginia Supreme Court awarded attorney fees and ruled unanimously that the county held an illegal closed meeting and violated procedural rules for convening closed sessions.
Nearly 40 newspapers joined with the VPA in raising nearly $100,000 to pay for the litigation.
Former House Speaker John Warren Cooke was honored with a special award for lifetime achievement. In 1968, in his first term as speaker, the Mathews County publisher co-sponsored enactment of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Special awards were given to Becky Dale of Richmond for her pre-dawn volunteer work on the Coalition’s daily listserv, and to editor/publisher John Edwards of Smithfield, Virginia. Edwards chaired the steering committee that launched the Coalition a decade ago, and has severed ever since as a Coalition director.
The VCOG awards were presented at the coalition’s annual conference Nov. 16-17 at the State Library of Virginia.
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