W&L, VMI host VCOGâ€™s 7th conference
The Coalition held its seventh annual conference this year in Lexington, taking advantage of locations on both the Washington & Lee and Virginia Military Institute campuses for various events.
On Nov. 17, the coalition’s board met at W&L’s library, followed by a reception and dinner at VMI’s Moody Hall. Coalition president and First Amendment Ombudsman at the Freedom Forum Paul McMasters presented the Coalition’s FOIA awards to Virginian-Pilot reporter Robert McCabe, to the Virginia Department of Transportation for its FOIA Tracker program (see below) and to Don Harrison and Andrew Beaujon of Save Richmond. (See sidebar for more on the awards.)
Then it was a brisk walk back to W&L’s Elrod Commons Theater, where two experts on press law debated the pros and cons of a federal shield law.
Moderated by Paul McMasters, the pro position was taken by Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and also a Coalition board member. Dalglish cited several recent incidents where reporters were being subpoenaed to testify in both high-profile and low-profile court cases.
Reporters need protection from forced testimony to protect their sources. Some sources will not talk unless they are promised confidentiality. Without a shield law, reporters may have to reveal confidences, which, in turn, will scare off current and future sources.
The con position was taken by Holland & Knight attorney Jim Lake. Lake, a W&L alum, is a press attorney in Tampa, Fla., and he prefaced his remarks by saying that he generally favors the shield law. His "anti" remarks were more a recognition of some thorny questions that must be resolved before the federal legislation, proposed by Reps. Rick Boucher, Tom Davis and Frank Wolf, is passed. Primarily, he said, is the concern over defining who is a journalist.
The historic Tucker House in Lexington served as the backdrop for the conference discussions and panels on Nov. 18.
The Coalition’s new Web site was unveiled to positive feedback (see related story, page 3).
The first panel of the morning, chaired by Coalition board member Mark Grunewald, a W&L law professor, covered access to military information. Lt. Col. Stewart MacInnis of VMI’s public relations department, talked of the difficulty in drawing the line between what military information needs to be kept confidential for national security purposes and what information is merely preferred to be kept secret.
Former New York Times foreign correspondent Marvine Howe regaled the audience with stories of her adventurous coverage of various Third World disasters and political upheavals, lamenting that sometimes U.S. military efforts to keep a tight lid on what was going on often hampered efforts to help possible victims.
Jim Crawley of Media General News Service discussed his six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf and his work embedded with a Marine division in Baghdad.
The conference’s second program was a lessons-learned discussion of the litigation between Nelson County citizen Lee Albright and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The lessons-learned panel on the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (l-r): Tom Moncure, Tim Sadler, Maria Everett, Gerald Massengill, Frosty Landon.
Moderated by Coalition Executive Director Frosty Landon, the panel agreed that DGIF had turned itself around in the able hands of its interim leader Col. Gerald Massengill, who also served on the panel.
FOI Advisory Council Executive Director Maria Everett talked about how her office’s opinions are persuasive, but they are not binding, leaving the council without any enforcement power when an agency ignores an opinion’s conclusion, as DGIF did.
Tom Moncure of the Attorney General’s office talked about how litigation decisions are made when an agency goes to court, noting the tension created when the litigation is with a citizen, since in other instances, the AG is supposed to be the attorney for the people of Virginia.
Tim Sadler of the Department of Accounts Division of the State Internal Auditor talked about investigations that stem from complaints made to the fraud and abuse hotline. He and Massengill disagreed over what the proper level of evidence is needed before an investigated allegation is considered proven.
The first post-lunch panel, moderated by Coalition Associate Director Megan Rhyne, was on genealogical records. Tom Crew of the Library of Virginia gave a demonstration of the library’s Web site’s genealogical resources. For example, the library has an archive of scanned-in pages from family Bibles tracing family histories.
D’Ann Stoddard, who has worked with local Family History Centers of the Church of Latter Day Saints, discussed LDS church efforts to put family histories from around the country and around the world online, often converting paper records found in libraries and court clerk offices into microfilmed archives.
Wendy Thomas of VDOT was next up with a demonstration of the department’s FOIA Tracker Management System. VDOT created the internal program on its own initiative as a central clearinghouse for all FOIA requests made of VDOT, whether made in Wise or Williamsburg. The system assigns each request a file number and provides prompts for people handling that request to explain exactly what they’ve done and when.
The system also has a standardized schedule for charges that allows for greater charges in urban areas where salaries and costs are higher, than for less populated areas. A user can tap in how many pages will be processed in what area of the Commonwealth and the on-site calculator will come up with the total charge.
The last panel of the day, moderated by W&L business journalism professor Pam Luecke, tackled the thorny issue of quasi-public bodies; that is, bodies that may receive some public support, but not enough to be wholly or principally supported by public funds, or bodies that receive no public support, but which perform a public function.
Terrie Conrad, of the VMI Foundation, represented the latter. She stressed the flexibility the foundation has to have to keep contributions confidential; otherwise, some people may not donate to the university if they know their names will be made public.
Doug Harwood, editor of the Rockbridge Advocate, said public bodies hide behind foundations and other "queasy-public" bodies to hide their doings from the public.
Don Harrison of Save Richmond talked about the problems he and co-activist Andrew Beaujon had in trying to find out how the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation was using public money given to it by the Richmond City Council. The city decided on how much to give on the basis of VPAF representations of how much additional money they had made, yet the foundation would not provide records to corroborate those figures.
Coalition board member and (Lexington) News-Gazette publisher Matt Paxton found himself betwixt and between. As a newspaper person, he is suspect when government bodies create entities as a way to get around FOIA laws. On the other hand, Paxton has been named to such entities -- namely, advisory boards on big public issues.
The conference adjourned as the VMI ring dance revelers started to pour into town.
The Coalition’s next conference will feature revelry of its own, as it will coincide with the 10th anniversary celebration of the Coalition’s founding. A gala dinner at the Library of Virginia. is Nov. 16, and the conference is Nov. 17.
Making Your FOIA Life Easier
A seminar for state and local records managers at the Library of Virginia
800 E. Broad St., Richmond
Thursday, May 30, 2013
9:00 - 12:00
Click here for a paper registration form OR
(note: you do NOT need a PayPal account to use the PayPal payment page)
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