Virginia Capitol Connections Summer 2022

Virginia Capitol Connections, Summer 2022 22 Don’t let anyone tell you that Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, progressives, libertarians, radicals, greens, ultraMAGAs or any other party/ideology are better or worse than their opponents on the political spectrum when it comes to making it easier, not harder, for the public to access the records that are generated in the course of their business. Public business. I’d like to end this column right here. Like, that’s the message. Period. But David Bailey says I’m supposed to write in the neighborhood of 900 words, and in my book, if David Bailey says to do something, I’m going to do it! Honestly, though, it’s been a staple of every one of my 14 years lobbying at the General Assembly. Someone invariably mentions that “our side” is more transparent than “their side.” That “we” want to help citizens, but “they” don’t. There are bills every year that an individual lawmaker may support or oppose, but then vote in the opposite direction on another, similar bill simply because it’s taken on a whiff of partisanship. Sometimes these contradictory votes are being driven not so much by the party but because the bill itself is being carried by a legislator’s seatmate or by the chair of the committee that will take up the legislator’s bill later on that day. Maybe the patron voted against the legislator’s own bill last year, or maybe they really can barely tolerate each other. That’s not to say that there aren’t principled, policy-driven reasons for voting for or against certain transparency-related bills. Lawmakers bring experiences and backgrounds to the table that have little to do with the capital letter next to their name. Maybe they’re former members of local public bodies, business owners or attorneys. Maybe they’re retired military, medical professionals or farmers, for instance. Maybe there’s that nagging issue that got a lawmaker interested in politics in the first place. All could contribute to whether the legislator leans towards openness or towards the government’s interest. In the off-season, I am often approached by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seeking to amend FOIA because the wrong people are trying to get records or information. Political opponents, usually, but also people (and businesses) who are doing bad things that must be stopped. I hear frequently how requesters are “weaponizing” FOIA. Too many people are making requests. One person is making too many requests. They are just trying to hurt the government; they aren’t actually interested in the underlying information; they are looking for headlines; they are trying to catch someone in a lie. They aren’t using FOIA “for its intended purpose.” It’s always interesting to hear what they think FOIA’s intended purpose is. When I think about what the law’s intended purpose is, I go to the source: section 2.2-3700, FOIA’s policy statement, which says, “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.” This powerful statement could only be more clear if it simply said: “it doesn’t matter why the public wants a record of what the government is doing.” It doesn’t say “some of the time,” it doesn’t say “some action” or “some level” of government. It’s not an invitation for a government official in local or state government to determine whose request meets the act’s “intended purpose” and whose doesn’t. The intended purpose of FOIA is to make available information on governmental action available to all comers at all times. Even when I disagree with these callers, I am grateful to them for running their ideas by us prior to filing legislation. They are doing their due diligence by reaching out to stakeholders in the off-session. It would be far more gratifying, however, if instead of the multiple proposals to slice and dice access, to declare that some information is just too sensitive to be in the public’s hands, to assume that information will be used for nefarious purposes, or to make it harder for people to make requests for records, the calls were to run ideas by us or gather insight into how the public’s right to know could be strengthened and improved. And then to really listen. Hundreds of citizens, journalists and government employees call VCOG every year. We know the trouble spots. We know the trends. We know the backstory behind the headlines. And with VCOG now in its 26th year, we have a lot of institutional knowledge about how and why the current law is written as it is. VCOG exists to be the voice of the average citizen. Citizens who, like legislators, run the full range of backgrounds, experiences, wants, needs, and world outlooks. Citizens who can’t be neatly defined ideologically when all they want to do is monitor their government. The citizens are constituents. They care about transparency and access and FOIA. FOIA is their statutory right. Whether they carry an R or D (or I?) beside their name is irrelevant to their right to ask for and receive records. By keeping the focus on the citizen, legislators can put aside their partisan goggles for a moment to be champions of open government just because it’s the right thing to do. Megan Rhyne is Executive Director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government in Williamsburg, Va. Don’t let anyone tell you that Virginia’s FOIA is political By MEGAN RHYNE For a uniquely Richmond experience, stay at Richmond’s oldest and newest boutique hotel. 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