VCOG: Why you need us, and why we need you

No matter where you fall along the political or partisan spectrum, it can be stated with a fair amount of certainty that we haven’t seen this much attention to government and politics in quite some time.

The primaries and general elections at the local, state and national level have attracted scores of new candidates and voters.

From all quarters, we are hearing about accountability and transparency, about facts, news and truth.

It’s been ugly, for sure. Many dollars and cents have been thrown at candidates, PACs and parties, all in hopes of getting Candidate X elected, or in defeating Candidate Y. Many will be disappointed in the results, and all that money will find itself on Nov. 7 in the form of mailers in the household recycle, yard signs in the garbage can and email blasts in the deleted folder.

And now that your dis/favored candidate has won, don’t you want to keep an eye on the job he or she is doing?

I may be biased (nah, I AM biased), but to me, the obvious “answer” to all of this craziness is access to public records and support for organizations that strive to protect that access.

Public records are the basic currency of democracy, no matter who is in power. They give the people the ability to monitor their government.

The public, the press, even politicians, have a right to ask for public records and those records have to be turned over, with some exceptions.

Public records are facts. They are what they are. They may state opinions, half-truths or flat-out lies, but the record itself is a fact. The records don’t tell us how we should react to the content of the records. Whatever is in the records is left to us to read, interpret and judge.

  • Public records document spending: Salaries, office furniture, fleet vehicles, capital improvements.
  • Public records document inspections: Bridges, nursing homes, buildings.
  • Public records document policy decisions: Why, how, when, where.

Public records may embarrass or document incompetence when they show that decisions were based on flimsy assumptions. When they don’t back up what was said publicly, public records may contradict.

That’s why it is sometimes difficult to get the public records you ask for. Deadlines for disclosure come and go, cost estimates to get the records are expensive, and exemptions are stretched to cover even tangentially related records.

And that is where VCOG and the open government coalitions in other states come in. Every day, these folks are answering questions about how the public records law (FOIA for us) works. Citizens, journalists, government employees: All have questions, and they come to us for answers.

These open government coalitions are actively lobbying their legislatures for better laws or to stop bad ones. They are addressing hot spots throughout the year by writing letters, op-eds and social media posts. They are working with government officials and employees to equip them with the tools they need to understand and apply the law correctly.

Some of these state coalitions are all-volunteer. Some, like Virginia, are fortunate to have staff. All require resources, though, to keep the computers running, to cover the costs of travel and materials prepared for training, to pay the staff to deliver the services, to keep insurance current, to educate through newsletters and conferences and other outreach.

The contributions made to state open government coalitions are used cautiously and efficiently. We’ve all been operating on slim budgets for years and have become adept at using free services. We use our own homes and office equipment and we seek in-kind contributions.

We also have to pass up some opportunities and forego new initiatives because we don’t have any extra funds.

So here’s my suggestion: take some of that money you were going to donate to a candidate for an election -- which may or may not go your way -- and send it to your state open government coalition (that’s VCOG!), which will directly support constant, longterm work to keep your government open and accountable.

Every dollar makes a difference, and every person broadens our reach.

Donate today and know that you are doing something that truly benefits ALL Virginians no matter who is in office.


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