Twenty years old and going strong

Published 7:17 pm Tuesday, September 27, 2016

    Two decades ago, a handful of newspaper industry representatives had their finger in the dike during every General Assembly session, trying to ward off efforts by local government, state agencies and industry to weaken Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, the document that guarantees access to most of the documents generated by state and local government, and most of the actions of public bodies.

    Leading the effort on behalf of Virginia’s newspapers then — and since — was Virginia Press Association Executive Director Ginger Stanley. She and a very talented First Amendment lawyer, Craig Merritt of Richmond, were the first line of defense against those repeated assaults on transparency.

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    Those of us who were involved as volunteers in that effort, mostly newspaper journalists working through the VPA and under Ginger’s direction. Came to realize that opponents of FOIA repeatedly us a fallacious argument. During hearings on FOIA exemptions, they would repeatedly make the claim that FOIA was a “press law” aimed at providing access to journalists, and that nobody else much cared about it.

    We knew that wasn’t the purpose of the law, but until that time had not been able to effectively counter the argument.

    What was needed as voice representing a broader audience. FOIA, we knew, was written for all Virginians, but many state residents just didn’t know about it.

    Newspaper and broadcast journalists were pulled together to talk about the problem and I had the privilege of chairing what was to become a steering committee on the subject. The concept emerged of a coalition of Virginians interested in keeping governmental actions in the open. And from that, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government was born.

    An aggressive advocate of open government, Forrest (Frosty) Landon, had just retired as editor of the Roanoke Times and agreed to become the Coalition’s first Executive Director. He built the organization out of whole cloth, and prevailed upon another recent retiree, University of Virginia Past President Robert O’Neil, to become the Coalition board’s first president.

    O’Neil brought national credentials and instant prestige to the Coalition, and Landon brought incredible energy and determination.

    Since then, VCOG has lobbied alongside VPA and the Virginia Association of Broadcasters at every session of the General Assembly. The Coalition brings a citizen perspective to the table that sometimes doesn’t mesh fully with journalists perceptions, and that has strengthened the voices heard in favor of open government in the Commonwealth.

    Along the way, Landon played a major role in lobbying for creation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, which today provides training sessions on FOIA and issues advisory opinions.

    The Advisory Council, in turn, further proved the point that FOIA serves all citizens, not just journalists. In repeated annual reports, the Council has shown that the vast majority of its requests for assistance and opinions come from governmental employees and private citizens. Only about 10 percent are generated by working journalists.

    This week, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government celebrated its 20th anniversary, and after two decades, it has reason to be proud. Megan Rhyne, who was hired by Landon as an assistant and later named to run the organization, is competently leading the Coalition and is a familiar face at the State Capitol every January. Aside from lobbying, the Coalition offers annual seminars on open government and maintains a daily internet posting of stories from around Virginia and the nation that involve open government.

    If you are interested in the workings of government, here in Isle of Wight and Surry, or in Richmond, you might want to consider joining the Coalition. It’s an inexpensive way to show your support for governmental transparency and to share that support with thousands of other Virginians. At least take a look at the Coalition’s website. You find it at