Potomac News Online | Sunshine Week – Striving to keep government accessible

No matter what the weather outside says, this week is all about sunshine.

Sunday marked the beginning of the first ever, national “Sunshine Week,” seven days focused on the importance of open government.

During this time, participating news outlets will carry articles, editorials and cartoons designed to spark public discussion about government accessibility.

The concept was first created in 2002 when Florida launched a series of “Sunshine Sundays.” Since then there has been an initiative, headed up by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, to start a national event.

“This is not just an issue for the press. It’s an issue for the public,” Andy Alexander, ASNE’s Freedom of Information chair, said of the issue in December, when national Sunshine Week was first announced. “An alarming amount of public information is being kept secret from citizens and the problem is increasing by the month. Not only do citizens have a right to know, they have a need to know.”

Under the Freedom of Information Act, known as the sunshine law, government bodies are suppose to make all disclosable records available to the public.

An Associated Press review of about 130 FOIA reports submitted by the 15 executive departments between 1998 and 2004, however, found that while requests for public records have been on the rise, government disclosures have been declining.

According to the AP, there have been drops in the percentages of requested information that has been released in full at the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Interior, State, Transportation, Treasury and Justice.

Even Culpeper is not immune to complaints about government reticence. In the past six months alone, the Sheriff’s Office, the Board of Supervisors and the School Board have all been involved in Freedom of Information snafus.

You may recall:

– When Sheriff H. Lee Hart refused to reveal the names of the anonymous donors who gave his office over $70,000. Hart said he had a duty to respect his contributors’ wishes, and that there was no law demanding he pony up the names.

 A Jan. 11 opinion from the state attorney general, however, disagreed, declaring that the information was subject to the sunshine law.

Since then, Hart has changed his policy and now his office will only accept anonymous donations that have been funneled through a known third party, such as a lawyer or the Virginia Sheriff’s Institute. The latter recently passed a $25,000 check onto the Sheriff’s Office, the largest contribution that office has seen since Hart’s election.

– When The Culpeper Citizen sued six members of the Board of Supervisors, alleging they violated FOIA when they met behind closed doors in October to discuss alternatives to a second high school. The weekly paper lost its initial General District Court suit but has since refiled in Circuit Court, this time joined by The Free Lance-Star and Media General, the Star-Exponent’s parent company.

The next hearing in that case is scheduled for May 5.

More recently, three members of the board have once again drawn some heat from The Citizen, which lambasted them in an editorial for holding what it deemed an illegal meeting.

That debate centers on a March 1 event when three supervisors, without giving prior notice, threw open the county administration building’s doors to a group of parents and students who wished to speak to them. The group had originally shown up to protest the cancellation of a public county forum once scheduled for that evening.

The county has denied the supervisors did anything illegal, saying it was an impromptu decision on their part.

n In a less publicized incident, the School Board decided during a closed session on Jan. 24 to schedule a budget work session for Jan. 26.

Now, Virginia FOIA law states government bodies must give three working days notice prior to holding any meeting, except under special or emergency circumstances when “notice, reasonable under the circumstances … shall be given contemporaneously with the notice provided members of the public body” in question.

In this case, the school system sent out announcements the following day, around noon, prompting discussions of whether that qualified as notice “given contemporaneously.”

The division maintained it did meet the requirements, but ultimately decided to cancel the hastily scheduled meeting, saying it had too many pressing issues on its plate to deal with a FOIA debate.

Alicia Petska can be reached at 825-0771 ext. 125 or [email protected].

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