Tuesday is Election Day. All 140 seats of the General Assembly are up for grabs (well, far too many of the seats are not up for grabs because redistricting has put many senators and delegates into "safe" districts). Throw in all the races for local boards of supervisors, town councils, school boards and constitutional officers, and we will easily see hundreds of new faces in elected office come November 9.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government stays out of elections and campaigns. We are non-partisan, and when the campaign season gets down and dirty, VCOG wants to stay away from anything that would make it appear that we are leaning toward one political party or any particular political ideology. If I've learned nothing else from years on the open-government circuit it's that a commitment to open government knows no political or ideological boundaries. We see villans and heroes with Ds and Rs next to their names.
Even though we don't get involved in campaigns, we are very interested in who wins the contests. These are the men and women we will be working with in the General Assembly. These are the officials whose adherence to FOIA we will be monitoring (and often commenting on) in the news media.
Because we want those in elected government to know that open government is for everyone, these are the questions we would ask of candidates on Election Day, or, if the results are already in, the questions we'd ask of the winners every day they are in office:
Do they understand that FOIA is a law protecting the public's right to know? Some officials have the mistaken belief that FOIA is only for the press.
Do they understand that the public would rather hear bad news as long as it's the truth? What really gets the public riled up is when they feel they've been lied to.
Do they understand that FOIA's exemptions are discretionary, and that sometimes it's better to release records that could be withheld?
Do they realize that it's easier to be up front with information than it is to go back later and explain why the information was withheld?
Do they think the democratic process is better with public omment at meetings or without?
Do they adhere to the spirit of FOIA as well as to the letter?
Do they understand that the public doesn't come to meetings to hear predetermined, consensus decisions? At a minimum, they want to hear an official's position on an issue; even better would be to hear an actual debate when viewpoints differ.
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act says that elected officials are to be furnished with a copy of the act within two weeks of their election or reelection, and they are to read it and become familiar with its provisions.
In the weeks and months ahead, ask those you elect whether they have read the act and whether they understand it. Let them know where they can go for help. Ask them if they'd be willing to have a training session with the FOIA Council, or if they'd listen to advice from VCOG.
And when the General Assembly goes into session in January, let your senator or delegate know how you feel about proposed legislation that could curtail the public's right to know.
An open and accessible government requires vigilance and commitment, from citizens and from those in government. Let your elected officials know that open government matters to you, and work with them when you can to establish open lines of communication on issues that affect you and your community.
Open government is good government.