Monthly Archives: November 2013

Openness in the News – 11-22-2013

Two Virginia openness news items caught our eye today.

In the not-with-a-bang-but-with-a-whimper category, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports (toward the bottom of the article) that Hanover County’s Board of Supervisors did not discuss their proposal to weaken the Freedom of Information Act in their legislative agenda open meeting yesterday morning.  As you may recall, Hanover’s Board proposed allowing more than two members to meet in non-public meetings, and fortunately, the FOIA Council declined to consider it, seeing it as the unjustified and unwise proposal that it is.  Here’s hoping that next year, once it’s no longer necessary to save face, the Hanover Board will let it go.  (And perhaps learn how to use e-mail and public meetings in the meantime.)

On the other hand, sometimes a Virginia locality really gets open government right.  This week, that was Newport News, which received commendation from the Daily Press for holding a public meeting to allow citizen interaction with the finalists for chief of police (H/T @opengovva’s daily Transparency News).  In our book, this type of interaction should be the rule, not the exception, for high-profile but unelected public officials.

It’s worth noting that FOIA’s personnel records exemption, found in Va. Code § 2.2-3705.1(1), allows the custodians of personnel records to release them except where release is prohibited by some other law.  Likewise, FOIA’s provision allowing public bodies to interview candidates and discuss personnel matters privately, found in Va. Code § 2.2-3711(A)(1), is an authorization, not a requirement.  In short, with personnel matters as with most FOIA exemptions, public bodies generally have discretion to choose to govern in sunlight.  Citizens should demand that public bodies do so for matters that have a significant public impact and should commend those public bodies, like Newport News, that get it right.


Nudity and transparency

We believe that the law should be not merely available but understandable.  Having law that can be readily understood without hiring a lawyer and a bunch of legal research is not always easy, but it’s an important part of openness (and the legitimacy of the legal system in the public’s eyes).

A common way that legislatures fail to achieve that objective is by enacting an ambiguous statute, the meaning of which can only be known by parsing vague and/or lengthy definitions, understanding a body of case law, and resolving various constitutional and legal questions.

This post illustrates legal murkiness by examining how Virginia law treats sartorial transparency, with a few side notes on related behavorial statutes.  (Go ahead — be a little bit naughty and read on…)

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The SCC and FOIA, part 3: FOIA Council workgroup recap

Yesterday afternoon a workgroup of the FOIA Council met to discuss the State Corporation Commission and the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  FOIA Council Executive Director Maria Everett noted that the workgroup was seeking agreement.  By the end of the meeting, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen.

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Public gains access to state retention schedules

With the 2013 state elections the focus of attention related to Virginia government this week, an important and beneficial change regarding Virginia public records has gone largely unnoticed.  This week, the Library of Virginia began allowing ready public access to agency-specific records retention schedulesWe highlighted the problem of the inaccessible specific schedules months ago, and we commend the Library for solving it.

Both the specific and general state agency records retention schedules now appear on the Library’s website, along with other useful information about public records.

Our prior post on the Virginia Public Records Act goes into more detail, but here’s a brief recap of why this change matters and a preview of what challenges remain.

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