It's not supposed to be adversarial

FOIA isn't supposed to be adversarial. There are places all through the law that encourage government and requesters to work together. The policy statement reaffirms that this is about ready access for the public because "the affairs of government are not intended to be  conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy."

When FOIA works -- and it usually does (I hear about the times things go wrong, not the times it goes right) -- it is an ask-and-receive transaction. There are denials along the way, of course, but the process still usually goes smoothly.

Don't tell that to Berryville.

There, the Town Council members were in a swivet because one of their colleagues had (gasp!) filed a FOIA request for information about a veterans-of-the-year plaque the town is developing.

A comment following the article in The Winchester Star says it as well as I could.

"The bigger concern I see is that members of the Town Council are failing to recognize that the mayor (a ceremonial role for the town's purposes, equivalent to all other town council members in all other respects) is nevertheless a citizen of Berryville, and more importantly, a citizen of Virginia, which entitled her to make the FOIA request. While Town Council members complain that the mayor's request caused a delay to the Town Manager's workload, the reality is that any FOIA request from any citizen of the state could do that at any given time. If anything, by the mayor making a request under FOIA, she ensured that the proper FOIA timeliness requirements (and payments due and owed by her to the Town) would be followed so that the Town Manager's time is not at least reasonably paid for by a citizen's request. If she made such a request under the strict role as town council member and required that it be made a priority, to me, THAT would have been an unnecessary reallocation of resources. Town council should take caution that while they are attacking the mayor for 'wasting' Town staff's time, they are essentially attacking all citizens for ever making a request under FOIA to the Town of Berryville."

I've written before about the notion that FOIA requests are wastes of time or take time away from other government tasks. Of course they take time away from other tasks, just like those tasks take time away from FOIA requests. Everything has an opportunity cost. FOIA shouldn't be singled out, not unless you're suggesting that FOIA be repealed.

I've also written before about how elected officials have no more -- but no fewer, either -- rights under FOIA than any citizen or reporter. There's no reason why any elected officials or government employee cannot invoke FOIA to find out information that is important to him or her.

And what is important is defined by the requester, not the government. Council members complained that she should have just asked for the information. The manager could give her an absolutely straightforward and 100% correct response. But he could also inadvertently leave something out or he could interpret an event or conversation differently from the way the council member might have. The records let the requester decide for herself, no matter who she is. As the Russian proverb goes (later attributed to Ronald Reagan): trust, but verify.

True transparency comes from letting the requester not only decide what is important to him or her but also from have the opportunity to interpret the records independently without a middle-man interpreter.

I don't know any of the parties here. I don't know anything about the plaque. But I do know FOIA, and I urge members of the council to take a broader, less threatened view of it and let the sun shine in!

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p> <br> <h2> <h3> <h4>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.