Showing up for open government for 20+ years

This commentary by VCOG Executive Director Megan Rhyne originally appeared in the June 28, 2018, issue of The Roanoke Times.

When Frosty Landon, the former editor of this newspaper and the first director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG), first took me under his wing as an assistant back at the turn of the century, he shared with me a simple but powerful bit of advice about advocacy: Show up.

I finally understood the significance of showing up when I started attending committee meetings at the General Assembly with him.

I’d heard the horror stories about lobbyists and lobbying that everyone else had heard, so it was with not a little surprise to see Frosty warmly greeting those gathered in the room where the bills affecting Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) would be heard. He joked with folks representing state and local government. He shook hands with legislators from all over the state, asked about their spouses and beach houses and farms. He nodded at reporters. He didn’t glad-hand anyone; he met them on their terms and they on his.

He did all the other things lobbyists do — testified on bills, met individually or in groups with legislators, wrote position papers, called on possible allies, worked with adversaries to come up with compromise language — but it was his relationships that made the biggest impression on me. At first I chalked this up to the fact that he had built up decades of relationships as a political reporter and an editor, but then I realized that many if not most of these relationships came about because he showed up for VCOG.

When I took the reins of VCOG in 2008 and headed into my first legislative session in 2009, I remembered Frosty’s advice. I was going to show up. I was going to wave the flag of open government and the people’s right to know. I wanted people to see me and immediately think “FOIA,” “sunshine,” and “transparency.”

It takes time. It takes going to lots of long meetings, meeting with lots of legislators, writing lots of letters, testifying on lots of bills, learning the names of lots of legislative staff members and secretaries, but relationships have formed, grown and strengthened. When open government legislation is proposed, legislators and lobbyists alike expect to see me at some point. For a small non-profit, that kind of recognition is invaluable.

Over the years, I’ve seen a subtle shift in the legislature’s attitude towards transparency, too. Each year, VCOG tracks proposed legislation that impacts FOIA other access-related topics. There are 60 to 80 bills on average to follow each year.

But a funny thing has happened recently: The percentage of bills that restrict access has gone down, while the percentage of bills that improve access has gone up. These “good” bills don’t necessarily pass, but the fact that they are introduced — by legislators of both political parties and from diverse parts of the state — is significant.

I noticed this turnaround maybe three sessions ago. The timing coincided with the release of a report in 2015 by an all-volunteer group of lobbyists and advocates — including VCOG — calling themselves Transparency Virginia (TVa).

TVa used public data and personal observation to track legislative transparency: How much — and what kind of — notice was given for committee meetings; did bills receive consideration; and did legislators vote by name on the record? Its findings that first year were pretty stark: meetings scheduled with little notice, meetings on the floor of House or Senate where citizens have limited access and voice-only votes on more than three-quarters of the bills defeated by the House of Delegates.

In 2016, the House created a spiffy meeting notification system that updates as soon as bills are added or removed from the agenda or meeting times or locations change. It also disallowed floor meetings. This year, the House changed its internal rules so that votes by name are required on all motions to defeat bills. And both House and Senate now livestream their committee meetings and archive them so that anyone can watch from home or office.

These are extremely positive and welcome changes. The legislative branches came to these decisions on their own. Legislators are submitting more pro-access bills on their own discretion, and they should all be commended for it.

But there’s a part of me that likes to think that the findings highlighted by TVa and VCOG’s message over our nearly 22-year history have paved a pathway for both.

And we will continue to show up.

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