Blogs

Public Access is VPAP's middle name

 

Two roads cross at “The Busiest Intersection in Virginia”: Money and politics.

 

So says the promotional brochures for the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), the 13-year-old non-profit founded by David Poole to shine the light on political contributions and political expenditures in Virginia.

 

The organization, which now boasts three employees and may soon be adding a fourth, recently added data from local elections, and has already begun tracking the progress of the decennial redistricting process.

 

My "feelings" about access

At the Virginia Coalition for Open Government's annual conference, the panel topics were very different, but there was nonetheless a common thread running through them all.

Panelists and speakers who gathered at the Capitol on Oct. 22 discussed lobbying the General Assembly, access to information on college campuses, government technology, FOIA basics and using FOIA to create prize-winning journalism.

Just about every panel or speaker at some point got around to emphasizing a common element in the access equation: our humanity.

Citizens vs. Media Access

One of the ideals underlying VCOG's formation in 1996 was the notion that Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act was a citizens’ law, not a press law. It was the people’s right to know, not just a reporter’s right to know.

 

VCOG’s first director, Frosty Landon, was a newspaper man himself, but he tirelessly championed the right of individual Virginians to access government records and meetings.

 

Requesters (and government) acting badly

The FOIA Council has had its plate full this summer, studying issues affecting access and the Freedom of Information Act.

 

Some of the issues are not particularly problematic, more matters of degree or of detail, like figuring out the right language to use for the amount of advance notice a public body must have prior to a FOIA lawsuit’s filing.

 

Other issues are much more charged, including access to law enforcement records.

 

Public interviews

I’ve lost count of the articles and editorials I’ve read over the past several months. I’ve even lost count of the localities or boards.

The Albemarle School Board stands out only because it may be the most recent (and, truth be told, because a faithful VCOG member of many years alerted me to it).

A few of my favorite things

From time to time I get calls from reporters who are doing stories about Virginia’s FOIA or public access laws in general. Invariably, I’ll be asked how Virginia rates against other states: is it better, worse, average?

 

When asked, I tend to limp along in response, hedging here, qualifying there, because it’s really tough to say.

 

There’s shock value in being among the worst FOIA laws in the country, and there’s pride in being among the best. I know Virginia’s law is in neither extreme. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

 

Access in the Courts

 

It was a busy week in the courts last week for access to government records, and I'm not even talking about the release on Wikileaks of tens of thousands of classified documents related to the war in Afganistan.

 

Right here in Virginia, three cases in varying stages of litigation were bright on the access horizon.

 

Want a better FOIA life? Try getting more organized

Better records management and better tracking of FOIA requests can make a government clerk's ability to keep up with FOIA duties easier.

Fee, fi, fo, fum: update/response

I received two comments yesterday from readers about another reader's suggestion for reducing costs from the Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum post earlier this week. The original suggestion came from a frequent records requester in California, and it appears that Virginia law isn't set up in a way to make the suggestion feasible. (p.s. Changes to VCOG Blog are in the works to allow responses to be posted.) Here's the quote the two comments refer to:

Fee, fi, fo, fum

According to the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Mississippi, the Magnolia state's open records law says public bodies can charge the "actual cost" for providing the records. "Who knew those two words could be interpreted in so many ways?" the center asks in its spring newsletter.

 

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