In the 52 years since Virginia Gov. Mills Godwin signed the Virginia Freedom of Information Act into law, citizens have been able to keep watch on public officials and actions that would otherwise be kept in the dark. Two recent cases in Southwest Virginia have shed light on government practices that disenfranchised residents. The importance of transparent government is always paramount; during a pandemic, open government is the only way to protect our communities.
Taxpayers have a right to know what their governments are doing. VFOIA grants citizens the right to request access to records from any government agency and governs access to meetings and communications, with some exceptions for personal privacy and ongoing litigation.
In Smyth County, the Virginia Supreme Court recently upheld the claims of the nonprofit Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library against the Smyth County Board of Supervisors. The Friends contend that the supervisors “made illegal motions to hold closed door meetings which excluded the public, and that during those illegally convened meetings, the Board discussed dissolving the Smyth-Bland Regional Library.”
The Virginia Supreme Court decision follows a series of actions taken by the Board of Supervisors.
In late 2016, the supervisors removed its seven appointees to the library’s board of trustees and installed its own members as the new library board. In four meetings in early 2017, the supervisors voted to enter closed sessions under a VFOIA exemption for meetings discussing actual or probable litigation. After discussing the financial costs and benefits of library closure in these meetings, the board voted 6-1 on March 28, 2017, to disband the library, precipitating the Friends’ case.
A Smyth County Circuit Court originally upheld the supervisors’ actions, but the Virginia Supreme Court reversed that conclusion, stating that the supervisors did not mention any litigation in its decision-making, rendering the closed meetings illegal. It’s said that democracy dies in darkness; in this case, the citizens of Smyth County were given no way to engage in the board’s decisions during closed meetings. In plain English, they were disenfranchised.
Meanwhile, Wythe County General District Judge Gerald Mabe ordered the Tazewell County Department of Social Services on June 17 to comply with a VFOIA request after failing to provide an exposure control plan for bloodborne pathogens to Fred Harman, a local attorney whose mother died of COVID-19.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires offices to have an exposure control plan on file; however, Harman learned that a department employee was diagnosed with the virus and no action was being taken to prevent community spread, according to Harman. He filed a request for the department’s plan June 1 by email and letter.
A government agency has five days to respond to a VFOIA request. An agency has four options in this scenario: provide the requested information, state that it doesn’t exist, state that the requester is not entitled to the information, or ask for seven more days to find the file, according to Harman’s attorney, Shannon Cooke.
Cooke states that the agency failed to respond in any way. The county attorney involved in the case determined that the file did not exist; Judge Mabe ordered the department to provide a letter in response to the request and pay the minimum fine of $500.
The case shows that weaknesses in VFOIA compliance can impact not only public knowledge, but public safety. We need responsive governments, especially in times of crisis.
While it has been fairly overcast in Southwest Virginia, it’s still true that sunshine is the best medicine. We support and applaud public servants and agencies who fall on the side of open government and transparency. It’s simply the best way to preserve our collective voice — and our safety.