Our View: Toothless Sunshine Law

Our View: Toothless Sunshine Law
Nov. 13 City Council public hearing. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act was created to prevent elected officials from gathering together out of the public eye and making policy without citizen input.

Last month, four members of Alexandria’s City Council secretly developed a blueprint for a new policy regarding police officers, commonly called SROs, in Alexandria City Public Schools and presented their plan as a fait accompli at the Oct. 12 council meeting. The four were Councilors Canek Aguirre, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, John Chapman and Mo Seifeldein.

Alexandria City Attorney Joanna Anderson and two open government experts that the Times consulted agreed that the action by our local council members did not breach the letter of Virginia FOIA law because the four didn’t meet in person or exchange emails within a timeframe that courts have ruled constitutes a “meeting.” See the Times page one story, “Sunshine Law: A closer look,” for more information.

But there is no doubt that the four violated the spirit of the Sunshine Law, which is to prevent policymaking without public input.

It’s both telling and sad that Aguirre said of the four council members’ actions: “Because ultimately what happens is while we have one-on-one conversations either trying to reach consensus or build ideas, all of that comes out afterwards.”

Aguirre apparently fails to see the irony, or problem, when a majority of council decides an important policy issue without public input, then presents it as a done deal. Because, hey, the public will ultimately learn of the decision, even though that will be too late for residents to have any say in the chosen policy.

Holding a public hearing after a majority of an elected body has already decided the outcome would be like holding the NCAA basketball tournament after the commissioner has already secretly decided which team will win: Playing the actual tournament would be nothing but a charade.

Bennett-Parker provided a statement concurrent with Aguirre’s comments. The charitable interpretation is that these council members fail to understand the difference between what’s technically legal and what’s right. It’s the difference between “can” and “should.” The less charitable interpretation is that they know but don’t care.

Doing things the wrong way simply because one can reflects the lack of a guiding moral compass. Ethics and freedom of information laws are important precisely because it’s so difficult for the public to rely on the internal moral compasses of elected officials.

It seems obvious that Virginia’s Freedom of Information laws need to be updated to reflect technological advances and the post-COVID-19 reality that few people gather around actual tables any more to make decisions.

Having FOIA laws on the books that have slim chances of preventing what they were designed to forestall – policy decisions made out of the public eye – means that the laws have devolved into little more than a form of virtue signaling.

Virginia’s FOIA laws appear to be aspirational rather than enforceable at this point. It’s time they were updated.