Sunshine Week 2013 round-up

Sunshine Week 2013 news article roundup


Daily Press: You receive your real estate assessment and wonder if it accurately reflects the value of your home compared to those of your neighbors. An entrepreneur wants to start a business near your home and you want to know how it will affect traffic on your street. The president of the United States visits town and you wonder how much the visit cost your locality. You want to know how much your school division pays its teachers. All you have to do is ask.

Times-Dispatch: This week, we celebrate open government, open meetings and open records. We celebrate our Freedom of Information Act, which gives us the right as citizens of Virginia to access public information in a timely fashion, without unreasonable cost or difficulty. We celebrate Sunshine Week. Over the past 12 months, FOI has played a key role in our reporting of some local stories, as well as some with statewide and even national significance. Here are some of noteworthy applications of Freedom of Information laws that appeared in the pages of The Times-Dispatch since last March.

Daily Press: We are in the midst of local government budget season in Virginia, with school divisions and localities presenting proposed 2013-14 spending plans and holding public forums and hearings on them. If you want to explore the proposed budget, and compare it to the current spending plan, where do you go? According to open government advocates, scholars and citizens, you should not have to go anywhere.From your home or office computer, or even your cell phone or tablet, you should be able to find those budgets on the locality or school division website.

Times-Dispatch: The recently concluded General Assembly session was a mixed bag for open-government advocates. Lawmakers rejected bills that would make it optional for some local governments to advertise public notices in newspapers and to shift local government procurement notices from newspapers to the state’s central procurement website. But legislators approved a bill to further restrict access to the names of people with concealed handgun permits and backed other new limits on public access to information. “I would ultimately think that it was disappointing,” Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said of the session. “It was more disappointing than it was good.”

Daily Press: Submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to a public agency may seem daunting, but you shouldn't be intimidated by the process, an open records advocate said. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said most public records requests come from citizens, not from the journalists who are often much more savvy about the inner workings of governments.

Daily Press: When Virginians are denied access to public documents, they sometimes must take their fight to court. Three recent cases — two in the Virginia Supreme Court, one in the U.S. Supreme Court — highlight the public's right to information under the Freedom of Information Act. One involves two out-of-state men denied documents because they were not Virginia residents. Another is a request for an officer's arrest list and personnel history. The third is about whether a judge had the right to seal court exhibits after a request from this newspaper.

Sunlight Foundation: A new analysis from the Sunlight Foundation presents a “Transparency Report Card” on how well state legislative information is made available to the public. Using data collected from our Open States project, Sunlight ranks the good, the bad and the ugly of state websites. Evaluated across six criteria, the Sunlight Foundation developed a scorecard and letter grades for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Transparency Report Card judges legislative websites in relation to how government information is publicly available. Factors include: completeness, timeliness, ease of electronic access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards and permanence. Full state rankings and our methodology are below but here is how the top and bottom of the class fared.Virginia received a B.

In a rare-for-Congress show of bi-partisanship, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today introduced new draft legislation designed the strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act. Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA and Ranking Minority Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, made public a joint draft of legislation designed to strengthen the FOIA. "Requests through the Freedom of Information Act remain the principal vehicle through which the American people can access information generated by their government," said Issa. "The draft bill is designed to strengthen transparency by ensuring that legislative and executive action to improve FOIA over the past two decades is fully implemented by federal agencies," he said.
Washington Examiner

Daily Press: Virginia's open records law allows government entities to charge citizens for costs involved in fulfilling public records requests. Depending on the size and scope of the requet, that cost can run into hundreds of dollars. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said costs include research, search and preparation time required to fulfill a citizen's request. "The charges are supposed to be reasonable," she said. "It's the cost to the government." College of William and Mary political science professor John McGlennon said localities have different perspectives on how somebody should request the information. Many explain the process on their websites.

Government TechnologyFlorida, Virginia and Illinois may be considered the most transparent states in the nation after jurisdictions within their borders won the most 2013 Sunny Awards – given to government agencies by the Sunshine Review to recognize efforts in transparency. The announcement of the awards on Wednesday, March 13, falls during Sunshine Week – a national initiative celebrating open government. (Those receiving A+, A or A-: Arlington County, Chesterfield County, Fairfax County Public Schools, Gloucester County, Hampton City Schools, Henrico County Public Schools, Mathews County, Montgomery County, Prince George County, Richmond Public Schools, Washington County, Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, Arlington Public Schools, Loudoun County Public Schools, Prince William County Public Schools, Richmond, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, York County)

FOIA Shaming is a project of the Student Press Law Center, which was created in 1974. The Center is the nation’s only legal assistance agency devoted exclusively to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment and supporting the student news media in their struggle to cover important issues free from censorship.
FOIA Shaming Tumblr


Megan Rhyne, Times-Dispatch: A lot of ink has been spilled over the years about whether government can or should be run as a business. Whole political philosophies have developed in praise of or eschewing the notion. Personally, I don’t know which side has it right, at least in terms of planning, management, budgeting, etc. But I do know one area where the two don’t mix, where government cannot and should not be operated like a business: access to public records and, particularly, public meetings.

Daily Press: Why should citizens care? Because our democracy and open government laws give us the right to be watchdogs over those who are governing us — and how they spend our tax money. For example, public access is especially important at budget time, when local governments are announcing that higher taxes are necessary. If your city manager or county administrator is claiming a tax increase is the only way to maintain core services, you have the right to ask for detailed information about expenses of every department, including the administrative budgets of those claiming taxes or cuts are needed.

Christian Trejbal, Roanoke Times: This year, instead of looking at what FOIA means to the people, I want to share what it looks like from the perspective of the gatekeepers, the public servants who must abide by it. People who follow news about Virginia Tech probably recognize the name of Associate Vice President of University Relations Larry Hincker. His office handles communications for the school, including both inquiries from pestering editorial writers and records requests from anyone.

Mark Tapscott, Washington ExaminerCitizens filed more than 644,000 FOIA requests with federal agencies in 2011, the most ever, according to the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy. Even though they only file a small percentage of all FOIA requests at major federal agencies – about six percent according to a Coalition of Journalists for Open Government study - legions of editors and reports say FOIA struggles are a regular occurrence for them, and often an unpleasant, costly one. That is the reality despite the law’s requirement that all government documents be available on request unless they fall under one or more of nine exemptions such as privacy, law enforcement and commercial trade secrets.

Maria Everett, Roanoke Times: Now in its 13th year, the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council is a testament to the foresight, dedication and legislative acumen of former Del. Clifton A. “Chip” Woodrum. As we mourn the loss of Chip Woodrum, who died on Feb. 19, we are heartened by his living legacy of open government to ensure the people’s right to know. Acting on his long-held belief that “the access of citizens to information concerning their government and its process is crucial to a free society,” Woodrum played the leading role in the revision of Virginia’s Freedom in Information Act in 1998 when he introduced and secured passage of House Joint Resolution 187, creating a legislative joint subcommittee to study the FOIA. With Woodrum’s skillful hand as chairman, the joint subcommittee completed a major overhaul of FOIA that addressed advances in technology (email and other electronic records) and at the same time ensured that the law was written in plain English. The other major piece of legislation from Woodrum’s joint subcommittee was the creation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, or FOIA Council as it is now known. As the chief patron of HB 551 (2000) creating the council, Woodrum and former Sen.  William T. Bolling, chief patron of SB 340, were the guiding hands behind the establishment of Virginia’s “Sunshine Office.”

News & Advance: It wasn’t that long ago, that government transparency at any level — national, state or local — was a foreign concept. Information, it is said, is power, and government and its minions kept the currency of the realm unto itself. Freedom of information laws, like Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, were anathema to government insiders, who liked doing their business without having to deal with “the rabble.” Except “their” business was, and is, “our” business. The business of “the rabble.”

Roanoke Times: Rural Pittsylvania County has received plenty of unwanted press of late. Between a fight over uranium mining and a lawsuit over sectarian prayers before public meetings, the county has some image rehabilitation to do. Supervisors did not help the cause last week when they eliminated the county Economic Development Office on a 4-3 vote. It is a decision for supervisors. It is just not a decision they should have made out of the public eye. The board majority seems to have conspired in secret. Other members told the Danville Register & Bee they were blindsided. Even if they did not discuss the issue in advance, it is not at all clear that the state’s Freedom of Information Act permits discussion of the elimination of a county department in closed session.

Kevin Goldberg, USA Today: What does a national initiative coordinated by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, have to do with the most bacchanal of days and a near-month of hoops heaven? The answer starts with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, famous for football, aren't half-bad at basketball either. And recent scandals highlight the importance of transparency and access to records on college and university campuses.

Roanoke Times: Virginia was on trial before the Supreme Court last month. The question in the case is whether the commonwealth may limit its Freedom of Information Act to Virginians only. In other words, may it deny public records to requesters who live outside the state? During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia wondered, “Is it the law that the state of Virginia cannot do anything that’s pointless? Only the federal government can do stuff that’s pointless?” No, Justice Scalia, that is not the law. The General Assembly has demonstrated repeatedly that it is able and willing to pursue the pointless, including this limitation written into state transparency laws.

Roanoke Times: When talk turns to government transparency, legislative and executive records typically receive the most attention. Reporters and citizens speculate about what is contained in White House legal documents justifying drone attacks or what goes on when a town council meets behind closed doors. The third branch of government deserves attention, too, especially during Sunshine Week. Open government is just as important in the judiciary as the other two branches of government. We had modest hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court might finally move toward allowing cameras in the courtroom. The two most recent appointees, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, were on the record supporting the idea before confirmation. Now that their lifetime appointments are secure, they are having second thoughts. A remedy, then, must come from another direction.The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, which has bipartisan support in Congress, would not pull back the drapes, but it would give federal judges the right to do so themselves for a while.

Times-Dispatch: Megan Rhyne serves as executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. She may be the state’s most visible defender of the Freedom of Information Act and other manifestations of transparency in public life. A Monday news story reported that she considers the 2013 session of the General Assembly “disappointing.” Her cause claimed some victories but also suffered defeats. The sun never sets on her campaign to preserve and protect the principle of open government.

Roanoke Times: The observation of Sunshine Week allows us to highlight some of the hurdles to an open, transparent government that is the hallmark of good government. It also affords the chance to recognize a government that has listened to our concerns and taken a leap into the sunlight. Roanoke City Council deserves such recognition for moving its monthly briefings from a cramped basement room, which few observers could squeeze into, to its council chambers that welcomes with a comfortable seat those who trek to the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building and also makes the meetings accessible to those at home or in the office.

Roanoke Times: Some government officials scurry behind closed doors when possible to avoid questions from pesky constituents. But elected representatives who stray beyond the appropriate bounds of a closed meeting and attempt to make policy decisions often discover that secrecy can backfire. Bedford County residents can’t know which of their leaders said what, but any off-the-books commitments made on funding for a new middle school aren’t worth a plugged nickel today.Most officials remember a huddle involving supervisors and school board members several years ago during early talks on whether the city of Bedford would revert to a town and be absorbed into the county. Supervisor Annie Pollard maintains that the group agreed to use extra state education aid received as a result of the reversion for capital projects, with a new middle school as the top priority. “I admit that it was in a closed session meeting, but the public needs to know that we did have that agreement,” she said Monday.

Amy Bennett, Herald Courier: The Obama Administration prides itself on using the power of the Internet to keep the federal govern-ment in touch with the public and, in some ways, it has even proven to be fairly good at it. The White House’s We The People petition site, for example, has given lots of Americans the ability to let the president know what issues are important to them. Petitions on the site have been responsible for release of items of interest ranging from the White House’s recipe for Honey Ale to the administration’s official public stance on the creation of a Star Wars-style Death Star in order to improve the economy. Those “successes” in this area, however, make it all the more disappointing that the administration has not invested the same kind of technology and ingenuity into answering requests for government information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).