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Talking about public business

Talking about public business

There’s a phrase that gets bandied about occasionally by public officials when asked by reporters for comment about a particular matter. It’s meant as a conversation stopper; a statement against which no reasonable person could or would argue because it is meant to convey a certainty, as steadfast and unassailable as a the gaze of the Sphinx.

There are several versions of the phrase, but essentially it goes like this:

“I can’t comment on something we discussed in closed session.”

Ugly Mug

Fifteen years ago, there was a delayed, but nonetheless welcome ground shift in perception of what a public record is. By the turn of the century, just about everyone was already doing most of their reports and spreadsheets in electronic format, and email was well on its way to being the default mode of interoffice communication.

Survey Says!

In April and May, VCOG surveyed its members and supporters about their views of FOIA -- what problems they encounter, what works, what doesn’t work. 

 

Actually, what is the cost?

Fees are a never-ending struggle between government and records requesters. Virginia FOIA says: government can “make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in  accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records.”

The Virginia Supreme Court just confirmed that government can charge for the time it takes to review -- and, by implication, redact and decide that a record is exempt  -- so now there’s a little more guidance (for better or for worse) on when a charge for labor can be imposed.

Wishful thinking

A Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that state legislators cannot witthhold the names and email addresses of constituents who contact them.

Who makes the final decision? Based on what?

Elected officials often justify their decision to meet serially in groups of two based on the fact that they're only talking, they're not making a decision. They won't make the decision, they say, until the public meeting. The problem is: there's no bright line between the discussion and the decision. And without at least some measure of access to the discussion, the public is often left stuneed by the decision.

What's good for the goose...

I’ve written up a short primer for the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors and School Board.

The two have been at odds over a BOS member’s request for salary data and other records from the school board. The school board has said it will take 14 hours of staff time and cost around $700 to get the salary data because of the financial software the board uses. Neighboring localities charge $0 for the same salary information and some use off-the-shelf management tools like Excel.

Anyway, here’s the primer.

To the BOS member requesting records:

Kick this outdated policy to the curb

We've all known someone who has either been foolish enough or unlucky enough to have to move from the Commonwealth to one of the lesser 49 states. 

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