Home Media types can get a little too touchy about FOIA

Media types can get a little too touchy about FOIA


lawI’m a journo, so I get it. Anytime a pol proposes an exemption to FOIA, I’m supposed to cry foul.

But I’m not going to join the chorus singing truth to power over a proposal to exempt public employees who make less than $30,200 a year from having their names disclosed publicly.

This is coming from State Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Fredericksburg, who risks additional scorn from those in the news business because he is a former vice chair of the state FOIA Council (traitor!).

Current state law exempts from public disclosure the salaries of public employees who make $10,000 a year or less.

No argument there at all, right? We’re not talking about the defensive coordinator at State U. here. A guy or gal making $10,000 or less is at best a part-timer, probably mowing grass or picking up trash on a roadway.

The public right to know how tax dollars are being spent isn’t going to be hurt too much with that threshold.

Stuart’s bill raises the threshold to include anyone who makes twice the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) or less. That means neither the salary nor name of anyone making less than $30,320 would be public.

Any heartburn over that? Not from me.

Funny thing, most journos are very familiar with that level of income. Just speaking for me, I never made more than $22,500 a year working in the business before striking out on my own with the launch of Augusta Free Press in 2002.

For the life of me, I can’t imagine why I’d want as a journalist to out groups of people by name who are making $30,200 a year or less.

Paying bills is tough enough for those folks without having newspapers cutting down trees to publish their names in agate for public consumption and titillation.

And no, it’s not hiding anything from anybody to keep those names out of the public domain. No sugar daddy or political boss worth the nomenclature is going to dole out the largesse in increments below $14.50 an hour.

Disagreeing with me on this point is Marisa Porto, president of the Virginia Press Association, whose day job is vice president of content at the Daily Press in Newport News.

“A 1978 Attorney General’s opinion made it clear that a FOIA request for the salaries of public officials must include the names or it has no value to the public,” Porto said in a statement. “Salaries are the largest expense in any government budget, and taxpayers should know who benefits from their tax dollars. At best, this bill appears to be overly broad and, at worst, it undermines the spirit of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.”

If passed, Porto went on, “this legislation would be devastating to the public’s right to understand how its tax dollars are spent.”

But are we really devastated if we don’t know the names of people working in the lowest of low-level jobs barely able to scrape out a living on what they’re getting paid?

I’m all for open government, but this isn’t the hill we should be willing to die on, basically.

– Column by Chris Graham



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