If nothing else, Access 2002, VCOG's fourth annual
conference, may have foreshadowed what's to come in the next
Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who is expected to be the
Republican nominee for governor, kicked off the conference with a
30-minute speech about open government initiatives he pushed last
year and hopes to see through this year, including auditing
campaign finance disclosure reports and requiring lawmakers to
account for how they spend their office allowance.
At lunch, Lt. Governor Tim Kaine, the expected Democratic
nominee, discussed many of the same issues, noting that this year
he hopes to persuade the House to televise their sessions and both
houses to televise their meetings. He also hopes to impose a rule
banning gifts to lawmakers similar to the one the U.S. Congress
Rob Baldwin, the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of
Virginia, next updated the audience on the progress of the joint
subcommittee studying the protection of information contained in
court records (see cover page). Martha Steketee from the National
Center for State Courts then reviewed the model rules proposed by
the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court
Administrators (related story).
One panel, moderated by VCOG Executive Director Frosty Landon,
studied the relationships (both positive and negative ones)
government forms with citizens and the press. Governor
Warner's press secretary, Ellen Qualls, herself a former
reporter, said she surprised herself when, during discussions of
700 possible layoffs, her first thought was, "how can we
cover this up?".
Bill Beck, mayor of Fredericksburg, described the wranglings he
and some of his fellow council members have had with former council
members and some citizens (related story).
He said he thought FOIA was being used for harassment.
Mark Flynn of the Virginia Municipal League said tone is the
most important factor in local government's external
Jeffrey Kerr, counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, recounted the saga between PETA and the Virginia Beach
Marine Science Institute over access to records related to the
proposed building of a dolphin tank PETA opposed.
FOI Advisory Council Executive Director Maria Everett says that
despite the annoyance of citizens who are looking for conspiracy
theories and the press who might slant stories, she advises
government to remember the Golden Rule. FOIA is all about
relationships, she said.
Prior to Kaine's lunchtime speech, VCOG presented its
annual FOI awards. Liz Szabo of the Virginian-Pilot received the
media category award for her story revealing the Board of
Medicine's failure to discipline errant doctors (related story).
Outgoing VCOG president Bob O'Neil received the Laurence
Richardson award. In presenting the award, VCOG's incoming
president, Paul McMasters, read tributes from those who have worked
closely with O'Neil, both through the Coalition and from his
work as founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the
Protection of Free Expression.
O'Neil accepted the award with obvious emotion. He
recounted the origins of VCOG, beginning in 1995 at a Richmond
hotel and singled out some of VCOG's most ardent supporters
for praise, notably Frosty Landon, who "is VCOG,"
according to O'Neil.
The first afternoon panel, though saddled with the decidedly
un-sexy title of "Access to Bulk Data," was
nevertheless very well received.McMasters moderated the panel,
which started out with Jerry Cerasale of the Direct Marketers
Association talking about the good reasons why businesses need
access to public records. They protect consumers by making sure
personal information is correct and up to date. Also, it allows
business, especially start-ups, to find people who are interested
in certain products and services.
Fairfax County Clerk of Court John Frey spoke of the bind he and
his fellow clerks currently face about putting land records with
Social Security numbers and signatures online. He acknowledged
beneficial uses some information has for title companies or
judgment collectors, for example. He questioned why some
information was even collected in the first place in some
instances, and also advocated stiff penalties for identity
Daniel Nestel of Reed-Elsevier Inc., parent company of
Lexis-Nexis, listed the many ways in which the public good is
served by databases compiled and maintained by his company's
subsidiaries. He reviewed some of the approaches other states are
taking towards balancing public access versus personal privacy,
noting that the mood since Sept. 11 is to scale back on access.
Tracy Smith demonstrated the service VIPNet offers to
subscribers who want access to name and address databases
maintained by government agencies such as the Department of Health
Professionals. Citizens can also run queries, she said.
The day's final panel, on access to the records of a
government executive, such as a mayor or a governor, was moderated
by VCOG board member and Ferrum College Librarian Cy Dillon.
Prompted by the dispute over Gov. Jim Gilmore's gubernatorial
records, no one directly involved in that dispute could participate
in the panel because the matter was still in mediation.
Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter and columnist Jeff Schapiro
nonetheless gave a thorough run-down on what each side was claiming
and what the prospects were for resolution. (The parties announced
a settlement the next week. Related
Immediate past-president of the National Association of
Government Archives and Records Administors, Jeanne Young,
described similar controversies around the country, from
Utah's governor declaring that e-mail was not a record, to
Rudy Giuliani putting his mayoral records into private storage, to
President George W. Bush's executive order modifying the
release schedule of past presidential records (which would have
affected records of Ronald Reagan's two terms in office, when
Bush's father was vice president).
Retired VCU history professor James Moore wrapped up the panel
with pointed but humorous stories of how throughout Virginia
history there have been attempts to censor the past, from the Fish
and Game Commission to former governors. He noted that smoking guns
or schemes are rarely unearthed.
Most of the comment cards gave the conference and the conference
facility high marks. Without the generosity of the Virginia Press
Association and its dedicated staff, not to mention the panelists
who took time out from their busy schedules, those comments could
not have been possible.