Virginian-Pilot editorial: What is a vote worth?

Paying the price for keeping secrets

Virginian-Pilot editorial
March 19, 2007

The battle to keep government information freely available and government meetings open to the public will never end. Like moths rush to a flame despite the consequences, some elected officials, by their very nature, scuttle for the dark despite the law.

Last September, a unanimous Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors was wrong to close one of its meetings. It took until January for the board to realize it was going to lose in further court proceedings, so it had to pay $93,000 to lawyers for the newspapers that sued. Even then, one member of the board said, "I don't think we were wrong."

If a unanimous Supreme Court and a punishing legal bill aren't enough to convince a politician that she was wrong, nothing ever will. That's why every year regular folks, newspaper reporters and television stations have to go through the tedious process of demanding that government remain open to the people who are supposed to be in charge: us.

Local governments are far from the only offenders. Monday's Washington Post reported, "A review of 149 federal agencies found that only 1 in 5 posts on its Web site all the records required and that even fewer - 6 percent - tell people how to request what does not appear there. Two-thirds do not provide indexes to their major records systems, or they provide guides that are so unclear they are worthless." Not only do federal agencies hide records that should be easily available on the Web; they make it hard to figure out what records they keep in the first place.

The kind of information that official requests under federal and state Freedom of Information laws reveal is nothing short of life saving. From the source of food poisoning in Minnesota to the deadly side effects of a new birth-control patch, open government rules bring citizens information they need. In Virginia in recent years, FOIA has helped reveal potentially deadly brake problems with the F/A-18 Hornet and the disturbing news that the majority of locks in the Richmond City Jail were faulty.

There are few protections more fundamental to democracy than open government. After all, what is a vote worth if you can't tell who to vote against? ďż˝