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March 9, 2021 · OPINION

Hiding public information stokes citizens’ skepticism

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By Megan Rhyne
Virginia Coalition for Open Government

Where should the proposed landfill be located?

Who is the most qualified candidate to be the new school superintendent?

How much did it cost to implement that program?

Politic me would say in response to all three questions, “I really don’t know.”

Impolitic me would say, “I really don’t care.”

That is, I don’t know enough to care. I’m not a local, I’m not familiar with the needs of the school district, I don’t know about all the pieces the program requires.

As an advocate for open government, the underlying issue is beside the point. I don’t have to know what is best or worst. I don’t have to agree or disagree with the decision.

What I want to know is whether the locality or school district or state agency has followed the laws of disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act and other provisions of the code.

Do citizens — or businesses, the media, advocates, researchers, even lawmakers — have access to the records that document these decisions? Were they able to observe and participate in the meetings and proceedings where the decisions were made? If they do, it is up to them, the citizens, to conclude for themselves: THIS is where the landfill should go, SHE was the best candidate, THAT was too much to spend.

From small-town politics to those at the highest levels of state government, that message is often missed. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been accused of being in cahoots with this person or that political party simply because I’ve said, “they did not follow the letter or spirit of FOIA in this instance.”

We all know where this is leading: The Office of the State Inspector General’s report on an alleged pattern of violations of police and state law in the Parole Board’s release of a number of inmates, including Vincent Martin, convicted of the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer.

I don’t know if releasing Mr. Martin was right or wrong. I don’t know the intricacies of his case or those of the others investigated by OSIG.

Further, when I’m at work, I don’t have an opinion about whether parole in Virginia — in its past, present or future state — is a good thing or a bad thing.

As an access advocate, what I do know is that the release of the OSIG report last summer was bungled, that the reaction to the leaked report last month compounded the problem and opportunities to address the underlying allegations were squandered.

I once worked with a Dallas public relations firm and the words of the firm’s owner have always stuck with me: When facing a crisis, it’s always best to go in the front door.

I’ve carried that thought with me when I’ve had to apologize to friends, family or colleagues or when tough issues came up at work or on the board I serve on. (In reality, I’d been putting this advice into practice since 10th grade when I confessed to a classmate that I’d kissed her boyfriend the night before. That classmate became my best friend. She still is.)

Going in the front door means you’re confronting a situation head-on. Being forthcoming with information. Acknowledging a problem, then moving on to doing something about it.

Going in the side door, the back door or through a window thinking that you’ll get in without anyone noticing and be safe does little but perpetuate doubt and create new questions.

It’s a mistake politicians make day in and day out: If we can just withhold all the information we can, we can make this go away. It never works, yet the optimists among them seem to think that this time will be different. It isn’t different. It won’t be different.

Instead, think how different this situation would be if everyone had gone through the front door. What if OSIG had released the report in its entirety over the summer? No redactions, no arguments over strained interpretations of the FOIA. No argument with legislators over whether they should get an unredacted copy. No argument with the same legislators when they made the report public.

No pantomime during the summer’s special session as bills seeking better oversight over the Parole Board were sent to councils and commissions to be given the review they deserved, only to never be taken up by those councils and commissions.

No reprise during the 2021 General Assembly session when the same bills were never docketed and compromises proved contentious and ultimately elusive.

No one frustrated by inaction thus motivated to leak a draft report. And no “look over here” diversion by characterizing the source of the leak as the real scandal.

All of this has happened because the very first decision was to hide the OSIG report’s findings to avoid a conversation — no doubt a hard one — about what to do about those findings.

Remember, I’m not invested in whether the decision to release Vincent Martin was the right one or wrong one. And I’m not in a position to fully understand the procedures and policies that were or weren’t followed.

But whenever there’s a government policy, it is in the public interest to know how that policy was implemented — state or local government and decisions big or small.

A Williamsburg resident, the writer serves as executive director of the Virginia Council for Open Government. This column originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury.


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