By Matt Chaney
A panel of FOIA experts expressed mixed opinions about the state of open government in Virginia at the VPA/SPJ Region 2 Conference on Saturday (April 9).
The panelists said that while gains have been made for transparency, much remains to be done to hold government officials on all levels more accountable. They also emphasized that while the Freedom of Information Act is important to journalists, it exists to benefit the public.
“It’s up to us to keep pushing. While the law is the law, we can put the pressure on to say it’s the public who has the right to know,” Dave Ress, a reporter for the Daily Press of Newport News said.
Megan Rhyne, executive director at Virginia Coalition for Open Government, agreed, expressing the importance of government transparency to both political parties.
“I am encouraged by the number of good bills proposed by a variety of legislators, from both sides of the aisle,” she said. “FOIA is not a partisan issue.”
The panel applauded some bills considered by the Virginia General Assembly during its 2016 session. The legislation included:
- A bill to establish local FOIA officers for all local governments, which passed;
- A bill to require that closed legislative meetings be recorded, which failed;
- And a bill to prohibit unrecorded votes by legislative bodies. Ironically, that proposal was defeated on an unrecorded voice vote.
At the same time, the FOIA panelists deplored other legislation proposed during the most recent session, including:
- A bill to eliminate public availability of records of names and salaries of public officials, which failed;
- A bill to conceal the identity and records associated with police officers, which passed;
- And a bill that would have given public bodies the right to decide their own FOIA exemptions, which failed.
The FOIA experts urged news organizations to be willing to take government agencies to court to defend the public’s right to know.
“I like seeing these cases pursued in court because I think it’s important to the overall health of open government,” Rhyne said.
The panelists also said it’s important for journalists to report in their stories instances when governments deny requests for information. The more people know about the issue, the more people will push for information to be open.
“Get more people involved. Report violations. If we can’t take them to court, let’s report on this,” said Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association. “Without doing this, how can we effect change?”