Sunshine is vital to our overall health – physical, emotional and, perhaps surprising to some, political.
“Democracy dies in darkness” is the mantra of the Washington Post, and they, along with all organizations that practice journalism, try to shine a light on power.
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations,” is the famous quote that’s widely, and perhaps erroneously, attributed to George Orwell. We don’t think investigative stories are alone in qualifying as journalism, but they’re essential to good governance.
This is Sunshine Week – and today is Sunshine Day – when media organizations remind the public, and elected officials, of why transparency in government is so important.
“Transparency” is one of those words that modern spin control has largely rendered meaningless. Everyone claims to be transparent and those who claim it loudest are often those who practice it least.
We believe open government has three key components:
1) Decisions made by elected officials and bureaucrats that impact the people they serve – that is, all of their decisions – should be conducted in the open with robust public input.
2) Freedom of Information Act requests should be complied with fully and promptly, with redactions limited to legally protected information.
3) Public employees should be readily available to talk with the media and residents about their jobs without fear of reprisal.
Virginia gets a middling grade on all three counts, particularly when compared with states like Pennsylvania that have an open government enforcement agency with teeth.
Virginia is well-served by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, www.opengovva.org, and the Virginia Press Association, www.vpa.net, both of which are resources for information on open government laws and lawsuits. Both nonprofits also have limited staffs, and could do even more with tax-deductible contributions from concerned residents.
Unfortunately, laws regulating governmental transparency in Virginia have not kept up with technological changes. The state’s sunshine law that forbids two or more elected officials from meeting in private to settle policy – the stereotypical smoke-filled back room – has been found to not apply to email exchanges or collaborative work on Google documents.
And if Virginia’s media organizations or residents believe local governments, or the statehouse in Richmond, have not been forthcoming with responses to FOIA requests, there’s little recourse short of a lawsuit.
Virginia needs to emulate Pennsylvania, where their right-to-know law created an Office of Open Records with teeth. Pennsylvania’s OOR frequently sides with media organizations in forcing local and state government entities to release previously withheld information, ranging from improper redactions on FOIA requests to access to public officials.
Finally, an egregious affront to public officials’ right to speak to the public is playing out here in Alexandria, in a lawsuit brought by former Magistrate Elizabeth Fuller against the Supreme Court of Virginia – after Fuller was fired for talking to the Alexandria Times in October 2021.
Fuller’s case recently advanced after Judge Patricia Tolliver Giles denied the state’s motion to dismiss.
“The Court finds that Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a First Amendment violation to survive a motion to dismiss,” Giles wrote in her opinion. Fuller has not yet won the case, but she gets her day in court after courageously blowing the whistle on a bondsman for his role in Ibraham Bouaichi’s alleged murder of Karla Dominguez in July 2020. This important case is both about justice for Fuller herself, as well as the First Amendment rights of public employees to speak to the press. Let the sunshine in.