Proposed cut of FOIA Council: Is it worth the trouble?

There’s a saying about using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat that comes to mind with the recommendation of the Governor’s Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring to eliminate the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council as a cost-saving move.

The line item in the 2010-2012 state budget for the Council, a resource for the public, the news media and local and state government employees on questions regarding government transparency, gives us a relatively miniscule figure of $180,459. Which means that we’re talking a couple of pennies on every thousand in savings here, at the cost of making it harder for government watchdogs to keep government accountable.

“It’s surprising considering what the goals of the Reform Commission were. Among its stated goals were to increase government transparency and government accountability. So to see a recommendation to eliminate the very body that helps promote this as an overall state goal is a bit of a surprise,” said Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, one of those government watchdogs.

The FOIA Council was established with the goal of facilitating quick answers on questions about the release of information under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, and the deeper goal of avoiding unnecessary litigation to resolve disputes over what is public and what is not. The proposal from the Reform Commission would push the resolution of questions about requests made under FOIA to the attorney general’s office, adding a political element to the equation in addition to a major clog in the pipes in the form of state-code limitations on who can ask FOIA-related questions of the attorney general.

“The FOIA Council was set up so that private citizens could have a resource to ask these questions, but local and state government employees are using it more,” Rhyne said. “And how much easier is it for a local or state employee to pick up a phone and ask a question than it would be for them to go to their boss, who has to go to their boss, who has to go up the chain of command to somebody who can under the code ask the attorney general for an advisory opinion?”

The effect would be chilling on efforts by the public and the news media to get access to information on government operations. It’s not hard to envision government employees presented with requests under FOIA deciding to err on the side of caution regarding the release of information. Citizens and media groups would be pushed to take their issues to court to get a resolution. Even a couple of extra lawsuits challenging an employee’s decision on the release of information would eat up the savings to be realized from the elimination of the FOIA Council.

The Virginia Press Association has joined with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government in bringing public attention to the Reform Commission proposal. The scuttlebutt in Richmond is that nobody really expects the proposal to get too far.

Stacey Johnson, a spokesperson for Gov. Bob McDonnell, stressed in a statement to AugustaFreePress.com that no action has been taken by the Commission and that no formal recommendation has been adopted by the full Commmission.

“The governor campaigned and has worked over the course of his administration to make government more transparent and user-friendly and the Commission has adopted a number of specific recommendations to implement this change,” Johnson said. “The Commission has adopted more than a dozen ways to help accomplish this goal, including moving towards a single portal entry system for online state activity, posting agency and secretariat organizational charts on all state websites and proposing a Transparency Reform Act be passed so that all government spending is available online in a user friendly format and in a timely manner. Efforts such as these will allow for greater transparency and greater accountability.”

Story by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at freepress2@ntelos.net.


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