Working to keep government open
Published 6:46 pm Tuesday, November 21, 2017
A retirement dinner was given in Richmond last week to honor Maria Everett, a career employee of the Virginia Division of Legislative Services who, for the past 17 years, has also been executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
It was a poignant reunion for many of us who attended, for we had worked in various capacities to strengthen — or more often, protect — the Virginia Freedom of Information Act during the past several decades.
The common thread for those attending was that whatever role we had played with regard to FOIA, we had all worked with Maria, who for nearly two decades has been Virginia’s leading guardian and interpreter of the statute that provides a window onto the workings of government in the commonwealth.
Access to the works of government is not a constitutional right. It is a right established by law — actually, 52 of them. All 50 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have laws governing what the public has a “right” to know.
In Virginia, access to state and local governments is guaranteed by FOIA, first enacted in 1968. The law governs both public records and meetings of public bodies.
For the first three decades of its existence, FOIA was left to interpretation by the Virginia attorney general and local government attorneys around the state. All too few people understood the law and, that lack of understanding led to confusion, fear and considerable mistrust.
To try and bring about a better understanding of the law’s provisions and a better method of dealing with proposed changes to it, the General Assembly created the Freedom of Information Advisory Council in 2000. It was specifically designed to include legislators, the state librarian, attorney general, local government representatives, at least one member of the press and citizen members.
Maria Everett had been the staff attorney for a legislative study committee that recommended creation of the council and she was the clear and logical choice to be its first executive director.
The council was not given authority as the final interpreter of FOIA, but rather to advise citizens and government officials as to its requirements. Using that mandate, Maria began issuing opinions that were quickly accepted as an accurate, and rarely to be questioned interpretation of the law.
During her 17-year tenure, she wrote nearly 250 such opinions. Interestingly, well over half of those were written during the first five years the Council was in business.
The number of requested opinions trailed off pretty dramatically after that, and I believe the decline may have had a lot to do with another key aspect of Maria Everett’s work as director. She traveled from one end of the commonwealth to the other giving seminars, mostly to local government officials, explaining the role of FOIA and the requirements it places on government officials at every level.
Through her training efforts, Maria Everett has very likely had a greater impact on access to government than any single individual in Virginia.
As the Council’s director, she also guided legislative discussions each year as efforts were made to strengthen — and weaken — FOIA’s provisions. She commanded respect among Republican and Democratic legislators as well as the various groups lobbying for a stronger or weaker law.
She played another important role as well. She mentored Alan Gernhardt, a young lawyer whom she hired as her assistant 13 years ago. In recent years, Alan has been a primary contact for people calling the Council for advice, and today, he is the new executive director of the FOIA Advisory Council.
Maria thus performed a final critical service to Virginians’ right to know. She has left the Advisory Council in very capable hands.