The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Freedom of Information

The Ownership of Government

Power to the people through a little ray of sunshine

There was a little ray of sunshine in today’s edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

This story is about the a Virginia General Assembly resolution of commendation for the Roanoke based Virginia Coalition for Open Government for its efforts over the past decade in promoting citizen access to the business of state and local government.

All journalists know that "good news" does not sell newspapers so this little piece was buried deep in Section B as a sidebar story grouped with three separate murder cases across the state.

I know this is not the Nobel Peace Prize. But this resolution is nonetheless significant and should be applauded by all citizens who care about public policy, how tax dollars are spent and the effectiveness of their public officials in the performance of their duties.

While the political theory of public access to government is old, the practical laws enforcing the principles of open government, known popularly as the “sunshine laws,” are relatively new.

Here in Virginia it is the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and it is found as § 2.2-3700 in the Code of Virginia.

Essentially, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act says that we the citizens have a fundamental right to access to local and state government business. This is because the ownership of government is in the hands of the people. This includes access to most meetings and most documents. There are a few exceptions outlined specifically as exemptions by the Code, but those exceptions are supposedly provided to protect certain especially sensitive information.

While progress has been made in the last ten years, largely owing to the good work of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, much more work needs to be done.

Too many citizens are not aware of their rights to access public business and too many public officials still struggle with their natural instincts to keep public the public in the dark.

Consequently, public interests are compromised and the citizens are denied the kind of accountability they are entitled to from their public officials.

Furthermore, there are too many exemptions in the Code, making it easier for public officials to inappropriately hide what they are doing and making it harder for citizens to gain access public business.

Certainly, Code exemptions are needed in cases where the revelation of information would be clearly harmful to the public interest or confidential private interests. But there is no place for exemptions designed to give inappropriate cover to public officials who want to keep the public in the dark on legitimate public business.

While the Iconoclast appreciates the Virginia General Assembly's resolution of commendation, they still have got a lot of work to do. For starters, the General Assembly might want to work harder to remove barriers to public access to public business and to give the the law some teeth so that public officials who flaunt the law face more serious sanctions than presently exist.

For whatever reasons, too many public officials who hold the public trust are too often sucked into the idea that somehow "secrecy is their friend." Why is this?

While public officials may temporarily hold their offices, those officials whether elected or appointed, need to remember that ownership of government always rests with the people. Let us not ever forget that!

So, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

SPECIAL NOTE: This is election day (Democratic primary in Virginia). Get out and vote. You need the exercise.


  • At 6/13/2006 11:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You mean exercise the vote? Very funny. I would be surprised if even 15 percent of eligible voters turn out! Voter turn out will be pathetic I expect.

  • At 6/14/2006 12:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I took your advice and got off my butt and went down to vote. Wow. It really works. My vote for Webb may not be the deciding vote, but it kind of feels good to see a real race shaping up against that sorry excuse we got as a junior senator and wannabe president. George Allen is the republican version of the democrat looser Joe Bidden. Light weights and dangerous. Bring on the professionals and bring on the November elections. Go Webb!

  • At 6/14/2006 1:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Lets not be too hasty in throwing Senator Allen to the dogs. Senator Allen has done some good things. But, I agree that we need choices. So let the debate begin. Senator Allen, meet James Webb. What do you two gentelmen have to say about Virginia and America. We are all listening. Thanks.

  • At 6/14/2006 6:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "George Allen has done some good things." Oh, really. I guess if you love Bush. Allen is terrible, and I think the comparing him to Joe Biden is perfect!

    George Allen, say hello to my little friend...James Webb!!! Better unpack those boxes for 1600 Penn. Avenue, you might have some other business to attend to first!

  • At 6/14/2006 8:21 AM, Blogger Dubya said…

    I just love George Allen. Heck, I really love the name George!
    He has supported everything I've wanted.

    Four More Years!

  • At 6/15/2006 3:50 PM, Blogger Ryan S. said…

    Open government is a good idea! We need a cable TV channel equivalent of C-SPAN that broadcasts the legislative sessions of the Virginia General Assembly and the Senate in the Commonwealth. That's requisite for an informed citizenry.

    To have republican self-government, one has to practice it in one's community and state first.

    Too many Virginians are in the dark on these matters.

  • At 6/15/2006 7:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ryan, you got that right! It would be good if more local governments had their meetings on TV too. People would get an eye full.

  • At 6/17/2006 11:11 PM, Blogger Dubya said…

    So far this year I have been able to fly to 39 different campaign fund raising events all across this great nation on my own personal 747 at your expense to inspire folks to give truckloads of money (almost $150 million) to good Christian conservative politicians. All the while I have promoted increasing the national debt limit to over $8.1 trillion dollars, assuring that your children will most likely never be free of what I and my friends have imposed on them in order to make my good friends very, very wealthy. I have worked hard, and believe me, IT'S HARD, to make sure that the country is more divided than any time since the American civil war.

    I'll be back in just a bit, I want to go try to choke down a pretzel.

  • At 6/19/2006 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    To be fair, shouldn't it be acknowledged that the record for taxpayer paid political and recreational travel was set by the former occupant of the White House, William J. Clinton, and that his record is not likely to ever be beaten, at least until we have US voters on Mars. How quickly we forget. Anyway, this discussion probably shouldn't be about partisan politics.

    A divided America in terms of political diversity and view point is not the same as another American Civil War. What we have presently is a closely divided Red / Blue split. This should be good news for those who are inclined to lean blue or liberal in their politics. With out this philisophical division, they would have little chance to wage a campaign for change.

    Political harmony just means nobody really cares what is going on and tends to foster a continuation for status quo (good news for those in power). In politics, it is always good to have a certain steady tension and pressure to keep people thinking. If we don't have that, challenger politicians are falling down in their most basic of responsibility.

    The guys/gals in charge are supposed to make everything look good and the guys/gals who want to be in charge are supposed to make everything look bad. Simple.

    This brings us back to "freedom of information". If we don't know what is going on in government, how can we care about it?

    So, keep the truth flowing, the good, the bad and the indifferent, and regardless of political party leanings. Both parties need to be held accountable.


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