Saturday, March 19, 2005
State law protects, but doesn't punish
Virginia used to have one of the worst open-records laws in the country, said Rebecca Daugherty, a freedom of information specialist with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington.
But over about the past decade, the General Assembly has "made lots of progress," she said.
In 2000 it created the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council to educate the public and officials on open-government rules and to mediate disputes. Last year, the council fielded more than a thousand Freedom of Information Act questions, of which more than one-third came from private citizens.
Virginia excels on another front, joining Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland and Ohio in making government e-mails open to the public, according to the committee's Web site.
But the commonwealth falls down on enforcement.
While Oklahoma, Florida and Michigan have jailed or recalled officials who have sidestepped the law, Virginia hasn't even slapped the wrists of those who have destroyed records or held illegal meetings.
Aside from a misdemeanor charge that hasn't been invoked in recent memory, lawsuits remain the last resort for taxpayers denied access to records and meetings.
A two-year study of Virginia's Public Records Act currently under way may change that, FOIA council director Maria Everett said. "They're looking at putting some teeth into it."
Meanwhile, Daugherty said it's up to reporters to make government accountable.
"Where you have a strong press, you're going to have better adherence to FOIA laws," she said.
For a state-by-state look at the rules, visit www.rcfp.org.