Pausing for transparency

Published 1:41 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Let’s pause for just a moment — just as Prince Edward School Board members did recently — and talk about transparency in government.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is a state law that gives you the right to obtain government information in Virginia. That means access to open meetings and recording them, whether it be with a camera, cell phone or a video recorder. You can take all the photos you want, all the audio you want or all the video you want, just as we do when we attend these meetings.

You have the same right as we do, the way it ought to be.

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“You can inspect records and attend meetings of the state and its political subdivisions, such as county and city governments, unless FOIA or another state law permits secrecy,” states a reporter’s guide to the FOIA.

In an open session, Beulah Womack, a Prince Edward School Board member, recently questioned a citizen of the county as to why he was video recording a meeting.

He has an unquestionable right to do that. That’s clear.

It’s as clear as government officials not knowing the ins and outs of FOIA like they should.

Womack took exception to his recording the meeting without the board’s knowledge and permission, asking that they get an attorney’s opinion on whether he could do so. Womack explained that “I don’t know how you’re gonna use it, and that’s my problem.”

Our problem is real and substantiated: that more appointed and elected officials, such as Womack, may not understand or know the importance of FOIA. It’s a must if you’re going to serve in public office.

Our hope is that the citizen uses the recording to inform others about what went on at the public meeting and those interested in local government.

It would be in violation of FOIA if the board stopped him from recording, as long as the citizen was not interfering with the proceedings.

According to FOIA, “The public body conducting the meeting … shall not prohibit or otherwise prevent any person from photographing, filming, recording or otherwise reproducing any portion of a meeting required to be open.”

Open means access, which equates to a healthy democracy.

Elected and appointed officials: keep it healthy with a big dose of FOIA.