As an elected official, I can testify that meeting the requirements of Virginia’s
Freedom of Information law is not always easy. However, Virginia’s FOIA
laws are every bit as important to our democracy as the right to free speech.
FOIA is the ability to find out papers and information in the government. If
government can arbitrarily withhold information about its activity, there are
no checks and balances. Government can then control the debate. This is a truly
If you buy a book, it’s obvious that you have use of the information
inside of that book. If you buy a chest at an auction, you naturally expect
to own whatever is in that trunk. If buy a computer at a yard sale, it’s
expected that you own whatever is on the hard drive.
It is upon the theory that Virginians own their government, and therefore
own the information inside of it, that is the basis of Virginia’s Freedom
of Information Act (FOIA). This act, recently rewritten after its 1968 creation,
is the backbone of Virginia’s open government.
The basic purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to ensure the people
and the press access to records held by public bodies and public officials.
It further ensures free entry to meetings where public business is conducted.
Essentially, Virginia’s FOIA was enacted to protect the public’s "Right-To-Know".
Exemptions are narrowly construed, and the rights and privileges of the public
are widely construed.
Because of the breadth and scope of government in the 21st century, the effects
of this act can have some interesting consequences.
Want to read the daily crime log for a police department? It’s your tax
dollars creating the report -- so it’s your right to know. The same
is true for a restaurant’s health inspection report, travel vouchers for
bureaucrats, or phone logs for elected officials.
It is interesting to note that in a day and age when information represents
power, we still have public officials working to keep the public’s information
from the public.
A good example of this was a meeting by the Culpeper Town Council in May of
2000. The Council, which didn’t have a clear choice for vice-mayor, decided
not to pit neighbor against neighbor and cast ballots in secret. This is a
nice idea, but citizens have a right to know for whom and what their representatives
Another example was the 1998 suppression of the so-called Geller Report, which
was highly critical of Virginia’s system of mental health. A third example
comes from Henrico County, where the Board of Supervisors tried to have "public" meetings
in such places as Washington, D.C., and Bath County, Virginia.
There are obvious legal exceptions to our FOIA laws. Some things such as personnel
matters, Social Security Numbers, trade secrets and certain economic development
activity are obviously private. The Federal Government obviously must keep
confidential matters of national security. Government simply can’t share
these things and still operate effectively.
However, unless we want to always trust government, we must avoid eroding
FOIA beyond these obvious exceptions.
-- Del. Albert C. Pollard Jr., D-White Stone, represents the Northern
Neck in the Virginia General Assembly. He wrote this column late last year.
Due to space limitations, we were not able to include it in our January newsletter.