Recommendation is inefficient and undermines government transparency and accountability
A subcommittee of Governor McDonnell's Government Reform Commission has proposed eliminating or consolidating several different state boards and commissions. Among those suggested for elimination is the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
It's unclear how much enthusiasm there is for cutting the Council or any of the other boards on the list, but in VCOG's estimation, it's not a good idea.
The council's extensive training, its on-the-spot impartial opinions, its alternative to litigation and its framework for studying FOIA issues and proposed legislation provide the Commonwealth with a resource that's critical to open and accountable government and that is open and accessible to citizens, media and government.
In response to the commission's invitation to submit comments, VCOG prepared a position paper opposing the recommendation. In it, we argue that the proposal actually undermines two of the Commission's four overarching mission statements: (1) to search for opportunities for increasing efficiency, and (2) to make government more transparent, user-friendly and accountable.
When still a state senator, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling carried the legislation creating the Council in 2000. It was created as an alternative to litigation, and to provide education to the public, to media and to government employees.
It is the latter group which has perhaps leaned on the Council the heaviest, as a near-majority of the Council's 1,700 or so inquiries each year come from government. Governmental bodies also rely on the Council's staff to come to their agency or locality to give training sessions.
By providing a forum where disputes can be worked out before they escalate, the Council helps keep FOIA cases out of court. Litigation over FOIA costs government time and money, which is far less efficient than a government employee's quick phone call to the Council for help.
The Reform Commission has said that the Attorney General can offer advice, but that offers little in the way of efficiency or transparency, irrespective of who sits in the AG's chair.
The AG-alternative is inefficient because only certain statutorily defined individuals can request an AG opinion. As one longtime FOIA officer at a state agency told VCOG, "Getting an opinion from the AG's office normally requires vetting through an associate AG. And one wouldn't contact the AG except for matters of significant public policy or major holes (apparent or real) in the law."
How much easier is it for a local or state employee to pick up a phone and ask a question than it would be for him to go to his boss, who has to go to her boss, who has to go up the chain of command to somebody who can ask the attorney general for an opinion?
The Commission's recommendation is not transparent or user-friendly, either, because citizens cannot get official AG opinions. Even if they could, they might be less than confident in the process when the AG's office is later called on to represent a state agency in a citizen's FOIA lawsuit against that agency.
VCOG has not agreed with every opinion of the Council; we have not always agreed with the recommendations on future legislation the Council does or doesn't make. But VCOG -- which has had eight of its own past and present board members serve on the Council -- is entirely committed to preserving the Council.No one would benefit from eliminating this gem of a government agency.