V irginia’s half-century old Freedom of Information Act guarantees “the people of the Commonwealth ready access to public records in the custody of a public body or its officers and employees, and free entry to meetings of public bodies wherein the business of the people is being conducted. The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government.”
We’re pleased that the General Assembly endorsed measures during the recent legislative session that strengthen the public’s right to know and promote access to government records and meetings. A fully informed citizenry lies at the essence of the government Abraham Lincoln described in the Gettysburg Address as that “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Of the couple of dozen of FOIA-related laws that cleared the session—nearly all of which went into effect on July 1—we want to single out several that we believe particularly will enhance open government and transparency.
A new law allows specific penalties for types of actions regarding violations of open records laws: $100 per record for those records altered or destroyed with the intent to avoid a FOIA requst and up to $1,000 if a public body, when represented by an attorney, certifies that a closed meeting was properly conducted when it wasn’t.
Before public colleges and universities attempt to raise tuition, their governing bodies must hold a public comment period. Virginia becomes the 11th state to require boards of trustees or statewide boards of regents to listen to the public before setting tuition rates—which skyrocketed over the previous decade. As James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, told us in April, “Although public input is commonplace throughout other Virginia public agencies, boards and commissions, Virginia wasn’t alone in its resistance to hearing from students and families—the consumers who pay rising bills—and taxpayers on the topic of higher education.”
Under a law that goes into effect July 1, 2020, local elected officials will receive regular FOIA online training from the FOIA Advisory Council, a state agency with expertise to help resolve disputes over freedom of information issues, or the local government attorney. Local elected officials would have to complete this training at least once every two years while they are in office.
“What I’ve been seeing is an increase in the number of bills introduced that are aimed at increasing transparency,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “And we’re seeing bills introduced by members of both parties. It’s not partisan.”
Indeed it should not be. Open records and accessible information benefit everyone, regardless of political party.