FOIA: A Virginia tradition, often flouted – Daily Press
Back in the 1600s, when Archbishop William Laud was using the secret Star Chamber as a court to punish Puritans and King Charles I used that same court to make law when he suspended Parliament, Virginia’s judges and elected lawmakers did their business in the public eye.
Openness in government and in the courts is a Virginia â and Peninsula â tradition.
After all, it was in response to a lawsuit filed by Warwick County clerk Henry DeBurgh Clay in 1891, after a Newport News election officer refused to let him copy voter registration records, that the Virginia Supreme Court issued one of the first rulings confirming the public’s right to see records.
The court rejected the election officer’s claim that the right to see his records applied only “so far as they concern” Clay’s own registration.
Clay, a former Union Army colonel and collector of customs for the port of Newport News, knew that ex-Confederates across the South were aggressively purging voter rolls in their bid to bring in Jim Crow.
“These books, undoubtedly, are of a public nature, and therefore, upon general principles, independently of any statute on the subject, any person having an interest in them would have a right to inspect them,” the court ruled.
Now, 49 years after our state Freedom of Information Act became law, Virginia’s tradition sometimes seems mostly honored in the breach.
The law says the public should be able to listen when public bodies meet, and be able to see the records that public bodies keep. But it also provides about 170 reasons why public bodies can meet in secret and shield records.
Both happen a lot.
Just a few weeks ago, for instance, Virginians learned that the Peninsula Airport Commission decided during a closed-door meeting in 2014 to use taxpayer funds to guarantee a risky loan to a startup airline, a deal that eventually cost taxpayers $4.5 million.
One reason they didn’t know is that the commission never voted in public to guarantee the loan. It just voted its then-chairwoman the authority to take whatever steps she felt were needed in order to provide adequate air service at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.
Virginians also learned that their governor believed a list of more than 200,000 felons whose voting rights he wanted to restore should be a secret from them, even though the state’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council said it was a public record they ought to be able to see.
They saw the Newport News City Council appoint 26 people to various boards of commissions without naming a single one, after discussing the appointments behind closed doors.
They learned that the House of Delegates Rules Committee still thinks it is OK to kill bills without recorded votes, and that another House panel doesn’t think public bodies should keep minutes of closed meetings so that courts could later determine if officials discussed in secret issues that should be public.
They wondered what happened when a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge barred the press from the proceeding at which he dismissed six of seven felony charges of domestic abuse filed against Del. Rick Morris, R-Suffolk.
They discovered that the state Office of the Inspector General felt it did not have to release investigators’ findings that Eastern State Hospital employees handling such admissions paperwork were exhausted by working excessive amounts of overtime, as part of its report on the jailhouse death of Jamycheal Mitchell. The man died in Hampton Roads Regional Jail after two court orders that he get mental health treatment at a state hospital fell through the cracks. Mitchell lost 40 pounds during the nearly four months he was jailed, as lawyers and the judge awaited word on whether he was competent to stand trial on charges he stole $5 worth of candy, soda and a snack cake.
Petersburg residents saw their city decline to name the law firm to which it paid $124,960 in order to settle a case, though the lawyer involved, former Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, later said the name “should absolutely be open to the public.”
As James Madison put it five years after leaving the presidency: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.