By Kent Willis, Executive Director
This is Sunshine Week, when we’re supposed to celebrate how accessible our government is to the press, which wants to report on it, and to the average Joe, who just wants to know what’s going on. While most sunshine laws – often referred to as FOIA, for Freedom of Information Act – aren’t bad, keep in mind that they were designed by the enemy to be deployed on the enemy’s battlefield.
Now that’s an exaggeration, of course, but FOIA laws are put in place and implemented by the very people who are most annoyed by them. Making the FOIA laws work for their intended purpose, therefore, can be an arduous task that is not for the faint of heart, the weak of spirit, or the low of dollar.
The problem is that while most government officials are in principle supportive of our sunshine laws, they do not like the inconvenience of having to open meetings to a meddlesome public, and they often have documents they’d rather we not see.
So when a conference committee is trying to reconcile a bill in the General Assembly, members meet on the fly behind closed, unmarked doors and they glare menacingly at interlopers. Only the most determined layman is likely to find those doors and end up on the right side of them.
And, when the average taxpayer writes to ask for public documents, a common response is no response at all. Or, maybe it’s a letter citing an obscure exemption from the FOIA that can only be understood by a team of lawyers.
But there are ways of tipping the balance in favor of the citizen-inquirer, and one of the best is to call the ACLU.
Some years back, a large state university located in the City of Richmond was considering expansion. Using taxpayers’ dollars, it hired a fancy firm from Boston, which dutifully studied the situation and wrote a lengthy report to this effect: Don’t expand east or west because there is no place to expand to. Don’t expand to the south toward the river, even if that seems like the scenic direction, because it would destroy a viable, historic neighborhood. Do expand to the north into a practically abandoned former business district where no one lives, and property owners are anxious to sell.
Well, the President of the college wanted to go south, not north, so he kept the report under wraps. Residents of the neighborhood threatened by the southward expansion got wind of the plan and decided to make it public to demonstrate that the university was ignoring the advice of it own high-paid advisors. They sent a FOIA request.
The university responded that the report was in the possession of the President, and under the FOIA, the President’s working papers were not accessible to the public. After repeated attempts to obtain the report, the neighborhood association came to us. We wrote a letter to the university saying that hiding the report in the president’s office violated both the spirit and letter of the FOIA law, and that the university must give up the report or face a lawsuit.
Two days later, an excited member of the neighborhood association called our office and reported that four boxes containing the expansion plan and all the supporting materials had just arrived on his doorstep.
In the end, the school expanded north, not south. And we made it a policy to offer to send FOIA letters on behalf of anyone who has trouble obtaining public documents.
Here’s another one. For more than a dozen years, the state Senate Finance Committee held an “informal” meeting in a private hunting lodge in Amelia County prior to each year’s legislative session. Under the old FOIA law, such meetings had to be open to the public but not formally announced in advance. Thus the meetings, despite being technically open, were in effect closed.
One year, reporters discovered the location of the meeting, but when they arrived at the dirt road leading to the hunting lodge, they found a locked chain across the entrance and a ‘No Trespassing’ sign.
We sued, but lost the case when legislators testified that they would have gladly let anyone attend the meeting who was willing to defy the no trespassing sign and walk a mile and a half to the lodge.
The Senate Finance Committee won the case, but was shamed into dropping the shadowy tradition. The very next year the Committee, for the first time ever, held its pre-session meeting in a hotel and invited the public to attend. It never held another meeting in the hunting lodge or any place like it.
So may I suggest celebrating Sunshine Week by attending a city council or school board meeting? It a wonderful reminder of how important an open government is…and it might just make an elected official or two feel a little more accountable to the people who put him or her in office.
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