Monday, February 24, 2014

Virginia Bill to Study 172 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Exemptions

This is an issue I have run into many times over the last 5 years and I posted about my most recent encounter back on October 26, 2013 The Virginia State Police will give the data to Victims Groups, National Missing and Abused Children’s Organizations and College Researchers, but not to me.

I look forward to seeing what happens with this bill, HJ96. 


OpEd: Bill moves to study FOIA exemptions, February 23, 2014

Want to know what your government is really up to? 

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act allows citizens of the commonwealth (and representatives of the media) to gain access to numerous records held by state and local agencies, government officials and other public authorities, along with providing the right to attend public meetings. The presumption of the FOIA is that all records and all meetings are to be open to the public — unless there is a special exemption specifying secrecy.

Sounds good, right? 

Maybe — until you begin counting up those exemptions. All in all, Virginia has peppered the Freedom of Information Act with 172 different exemptions under which transparency is prevented. Many of these exemptions are understandable: closed meetings for personnel issues such as hiring or firing, protected documents that show security plans. But many might not, in fact, be necessary. Circumstances might have changed since their enaction, rendering them unwarranted. They might be the result of “mission creep” — the slow, steady, cumulative advance of changes that might have once seemed justifiable in isolation, but have now proved to be over burdensome in aggregate. 

Or perhaps they were simply bad ideas to begin with. 

Appropriately, the General Assembly is moving toward a re-evaluation of these 172 exemptions. 

"You might consider this resolution to be a check up on the health and vitality of Virginia's FOIA law," said Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill. 
The House of Delegates has passed, with only one dissenting vote, a bill that would direct the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council to review all exemptions. Last week, the bill was reported out of a Senate subcommittee. The bill also instructs the group to "examine the organizational structure of FOIA and make recommendations to improve readability and clarity of FOIA." The last time such a checkup was performed was 14 years ago, resulting in a rewrite of the law. Since then, 70 more exemptions have been added. 

It is imperative that Virginia’s open government law remains healthy and effective. The health and effectiveness of democracy depends on it.