Carrying the torch of open government into our 3rd decade

This commentary originally appeared in The Roanoke Times, September 18, 2016


Back in May 1995, the director of the Virginia Press Association, Ginger Stanley, reported to the VPA board of directors that the number of bills seeking to expand exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act had been steadily increasing year by year.

VPA’s board noted that because Stanley, also VPA’s lobbyist, was often working on legislation that could impact the business side of the newspaper business, it was sometimes difficult to give equal time and priority to bills affecting public access.

A kernel was forming with VPA’s leadership that a separate entity was needed — one that operated independently of VPA or any member of the press — to advance the public’s right to the information it needed to be informed about its state and local government and hold both accountable.

By year’s end, the idea for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government had germinated, thanks to the quick work of a steering committee of prominent newspaper folks, bolstered by the strength of Virginia’s broadcasters.

Over the next few months, the steering committee set the priorities of the group, drew up bylaws, set up a member-dues structure — one designed to generate revenue, but to be modest enough to encourage widespread participation — and put in the paperwork to establish the coalition as a 501c(3) nonprofit organization.

The steering committee rounded up allies, like the Virginia Library Association and the League of Women Voters, well-positioned patrons, in particular former governors Gerald Baliles and Linwood Holton, and garnered the all-important start-up funds that would allow the coalition not just to exist, but to actually do something. Into the breach stepped Roanoke’s own Forrest “Frosty” Landon.

Frosty liked to say that he failed at retirement. Not even two months after the ink dried on his departure from the editor’s chair at The Roanoke Times in October 1995, Frosty had thrown himself in to the steering committee’s work and was eventually chosen to be VCOG’s first executive director.

The steering committee envisioned the director as a “highly visible source of authoritative information, expertise and assistance,” which Frosty most certainly was. I’m told everyone in Roanoke knows Frosty and Frosty knows everyone in Roanoke. He certainly seemed to know everyone in Richmond, where legislators frequently asked during committee hearings what Frosty was on some piece of proposed legislation. He traveled the state tirelessly — sometimes with dogs, sometimes not, but always in a car with “opengov” vanity license plates — to talk to groups about the importance of open government.

Frosty served as VCOG’s director for 10 years, drawing only a modest salary so that the coalition could focus on becoming self-sustaining. His parting gift to the coalition when he stepped down from the director’s chair in 1996 was raising money and securing a matching grant that created a $500,000 endowment that could propel VCOG into its next decade.

And here we are, at the end of that second decade, celebrating not only VCOG’s continued existence but its continued growth and evolution into a resource for Virginia’s citizens, press and government on issues of transparency, access and Virginia’s FOIA.

Frosty hired me in 1998 to put all of the opinions issued by the attorney general’s office online in a searchable archive. The archive is still active and in use today on VCOG’s website. After that, I worked on a couple of other projects Frosty secured grants for, and eventually he hired me as an assistant. I took the reins of VCOG in 2008.

A Dec. 20, 1995, fact sheet about the coalition stated VCOG was poised to “sponsor newsletters, manuals, videos, and seminars and programs throughout the state.” And indeed we still do. VCOG distributes a free daily email newsletter on access issues, a monthly online roundup and four quarterly print publications. We published a pocket version of FOIA that we still distribute for free. We’ve made how-to videos, held 16 conferences taking advantage of unique venues around the state, and have conducted training talks and seminars for hundreds of attendees. Next month, in fact, in partnership with Tidewater Community College, we are launching the first of four webinar-based training sessions.

The 1995 memo also anticipated involvement in the legislative process, both as an advocate and as a monitor responsible for informing the public about bills and actions impacting the public’s right to know. Again, this is something we still do.

Aside from sticking to the goals laid out in the fact sheet, I have tried to work in the model that Frosty set. He was passionate about the issue, sure, but what he demonstrated to me every day was the importance of working across divisions, compromising when possible, being fair and honest and simply showing up to “carry the flag,” as he used to say.

The faces may have changed, and the technology certainly has, but the goals and purposes of the coalition have remained rock solid. That is thanks to the foresight of the many people who put an idea into action, as well as the diligence, humor and energy of its founding director: Roanoke’s own Frosty Landon.

VCOG will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a dinner at Rocketts Landing in Richmond on Sept. 22. Tickets are available on VCOG’s website and donations are welcome.


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