Handbook aimed at access

Published 5:43 pm Friday, July 31, 2015

Are you a serious observer of local government? Have you had difficulty obtaining information from government at the local or state level? Are you unsure of your rights as a citizen to information held by government?
If you answered “yes” or even “maybe” to any of the above, then this is definitely for you.
Access to most governmental meetings and records in Virginia is covered by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Separate sections of the act deal with records and meetings, explaining what is available and what government is allowed — but not required — to withhold.
The Virginia Press Association spends a considerable amount of money and effort each year tracking the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), lobbying for more, rather than less, access and trying to guide exemptions made to the open government law so they are the least restrictive possible.
And each year, for more than 25 years, the press association has published a “Reporters’ Guide to the Freedom of Information Act in Virginia.”
The booklet, now 88 pages long, contains a helpful general description of FOIA, the full text of the law, and practical information about how it can be used.
Advice in the book is written for reporters but much of it can be helpful to any Virginia resident who wants to exercise his or her right to know what government is doing. It includes a sample FOIA request, as well as information on how to sue a government agency under FOIA.
Serious observers of government have obtained copies of the handbook every year it has been published. They’re sold at cost by the press association.
This year, however, the Reporters Guide to FOIA has been placed online. A PDF version easily can be downloaded. If you are even a little bit interested in governmental access — and secrecy — you should download this document.
The law, of course, is available in the Virginia Code, which is also online, but the handbook is more convenient way of reading the statute and, of course, can be printed in whole or in part.
To download a copy of the Reporters Guide, go to http://www.vpa.net/sites/default/files/pages_files/2015FOIAGUIDE.pdf.

Lofty goal
The introductory policy statement of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act was written by former Governor Gerald Baliles, a staunch defender of open government, and was added to the statute, which had been written years earlier. Though the day-to-day application of FOIA frequently falls short of the statement’s lofty goal, the policy is worth repeating here:
“By enacting this chapter, the General Assembly ensures 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.  Unless a public body or its officers or employees specifically elect to exercise an exemption provided by this chapter or any other statute, every meeting shall be open to the public and all public records shall be available for inspection and copying upon request. All public records and meetings shall be presumed open, unless an exemption is properly invoked.
The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government. Any exemption from public access to records or meetings shall be narrowly construed and no record shall be withheld or meeting closed to the public unless specifically made exempt pursuant to this chapter or other specific provision of law. This chapter shall not be construed to discourage the free discussion by government officials or employees of public matters with the citizens of the Commonwealth.  All public bodies and their officers and employees shall make reasonable efforts to reach an agreement with a requester concerning the production of the records requested.
Any ordinance adopted by a local governing body that conflicts with the provisions of this chapter shall be void.”

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