UPDATED: Letter to governor re: Charlottesville rally information

UPDATE: VCOG received this letter from Noah Sullivan, counsel to Gov. McAuliffe, on Oct. 25.

 

 

The Honorable Terry McAuliffe

P.O. Box 1475

Richmond, Virginia  23218

 

October 24, 2017

 

Dear Governor McAuliffe:

 

I write today on behalf of members and board of directors of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government — a nonpartisan nonprofit promoting access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level — to urge that the governor’s office be more forthcoming with information related to the Aug. 11-12 Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville.

 

To date, records requests made under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act have been denied or remain pending, including requests made by the City of Charlottesville as it conducts a formal review. The governor’s Task Force on Public Safety Preparedness and Response to Civil Unrest has met behind closed doors and with little public announcement. Members of the task force have been asked to sign confidentiality agreements.

 

The governor and his administration must do better.

 

These are not unchartered waters. Ten years ago a team of government officials, advocates and experts in the nonprofit and private sectors were brought together with the grim but important task of reviewing the circumstances leading up to, during and following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Consider this passage from the panel’s final report:

The panel’s objective was to conduct the review process as openly as possible while maintaining confidential aspects of the police investigation, medical records, court records, academic records, and information provided in confidence. The panel’s work was governed by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, and the requirements of that act were adhered to strictly.

   …

A key part of the panel’s review process was a series of four public meetings held in different parts of the Commonwealth to accommodate those who wished to contribute information. . . . In addition to the primary speakers, every public meeting included time for public comment.

The reasoning behind this approach is obvious: an open, thorough airing of the facts serves the public interest. Withholding information, denying public observation or shunning opportunities for public input only exacerbates the pain of all who were touched by this tragedy. 

 

With national, even international attention focused on the Commonwealth, we urge the governor and his administration to better balance the public’s right to know with legitimate, but limited, need for government confidentiality in aspects of this investigation.

  • Some records can be released and/or redacted. FOIA’s exemptions are discretionary, not mandatory;
  • Meetings can be opened to the public, even if they are not subject to FOIA’s rules for meetings. Parts of the meetings can be closed for discussion of sensitive topics;
  • Public comment can be restricted when necessary to the efficient operation of the meetings, but public input should not be entirely barred.
  • Committee members should retain their rights under the First Amendment. Trust their judgment to be discrete with information they learn about in closed sessions.

It will take courage to allow the world to watch as Virginia takes full measure of what happened in Charlottesville, but doing so will build trust in these proceedings and inspire confidence in its conclusions. Better that the commonwealth serve as a model of how to confront such a challenge than be held up as an example of how not to do so.  

 

In announcing the formation of the task force, Gov. McAuliffe said, “We owe it to [the brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way] and to all Virginians to examine every element of our operations on that day to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep our citizens safe during periods of civil unrest.”

 

As well, we owe it to them, and to all Virginians, that this work be conducted transparently.  

 

 

Megan Rhyne

VCOG Executive Director

 

 

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