Editorial: FOIA faux pas

Posted on Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 11:38 am

Hanover Supervisors took up their legislative agenda for the upcoming General Assembly session Wednesday.

Among the Board’s action items is a softened request to ask the FOIA Advisory Council to study the current definition of “public meeting,” instead of asking the legislature to change the law so that three supervisors can talk shop outside of the public eye without violating current open meeting statutes.

Here’s the full “action item:”

“Request that the FOIA Advisory Council be asked to study the current definition of ‘public meeting’ contained in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, including a comparison of the definition with the provisions of freedom of information and open government statutes in adjoining states and the federal government, to determine whether permitting informal discussion of public business by more than two members, but less than a quorum, of a public body would promote greater efficiency and effectiveness while maintaining transparency in the transaction of public business.”

While we are grateful the Board has softened its stance, the current request remains troubling.

For starters, the oxymoronic terms “federal government” and “efficiency” are used in the same sentence. We object to this on both semantic and practical grounds.

Secondly, in no way does three supervisors meeting to discuss public business in private qualify as transparency. We’ll save the FOIA council time on that one. While it may make the Board work more efficiently by hashing out their business before meetings occur – and therefore taking care of the nitty gritty while we’re not watching – doing so would undermine the public’s trust. If Supervisors want to meet to discuss county business in an “informal” way, perhaps they should hold work sessions.

Virginia was ranked 47 out of 50 for “risk of corruption” and received a matching grade of “F” for public access to information, according to the “State Integrity Investigation,” a project of the Center for Public Integrity.

When our state is one of the bottom three for transparency, the Virginia FOIA Council’s time would be better served looking on how to increase and strengthen our currently flawed statutes instead of being asked to erode them further.


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