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Sunshine advocacy group celebrates quarter-century

Effective representative government can only survive if citizens are able to observe and evaluate what it’s doing. In modern times, the primary tools enabling that oversight are various “sunshine” laws. In the commonwealth, we call ours the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

It’s been more than half a century since FOIA was first enacted in 1968. Three subsequent rewrites of the law have strengthened it, but over the years, numerous amendments have also added exemptions that continue to shroud a troubling amount of governmental activity from public scrutiny.

In fact, concern over governmental secrecy despite FOIA led to a serious discussion of the issue among Virginia journalists in the mid-1990s.

The discussions became a recurring theme during meetings of the Virginia Press Association (VPA), which was a well-funded and vigorous champion of governmental transparency and First Amendment protection.

While the VPA kept watch over General Assembly sessions, monitoring efforts to water down FOIA and create other roadblocks to citizen access, its members realized that it and the smaller Virginia Association of Broadcasters (VAB) were often crying in the wilderness. Legislators claimed repeatedly that FOIA was a “press access” bill and that no one else cared. Their logic was simple: Only journalists ever showed up to complain.

FOIA was not written for journalists, but for all Virginians, and it is most often used by non-journalists trying to obtain information. An effort had to be made to bring a cross section of Virginians to the table to continually demand governmental transparency. What was needed was a coalition of various interest groups and individuals that could more effectively press to keep government in the sunshine.

The timing was right. Newspapers were still financially strong and there was funding available from groups such the Knight Endowment to help fund transparency movements.

There were also key players available. Forrest “Frosty” Landon had just stepped down as VPA president and was planning to retire from his job as executive editor of the Roanoke Times. Frosty was one of the state’s most articulate and outspoken advocates of FOIA. It was he, more than anyone else, who drove the concept of a statewide coalition. A committee that I had the honor of chairing was cobbled together with representatives from VPA, the Virginia Association of Broadcasters and key newspapers and television stations.

Former Govs. Gerald Baliles and Linwood Holton met with the group and provided incalculable advice on what would — and what would not — work in Virginia’s relatively conservative political environment.

A short time later, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG) was created with a significant number of newspapers, newspaper chains and television stations signing on as founding members. In addition, the list included public television networks in Hampton Roads, Central Virginia and Roanoke, the Virginia Library Association, the Virginia State Library and the League of Women Voters.

Frosty, by then fully retired, was hired as the organization’s founding director. He put the coalition together by relying on models around the country as well as his own creative mind.

He would later be succeeded by Megan Rhyne, who has been the respected voice of VCOG for better than two decades and remains its director.

The VPA and VAB remain active guardians of governmental access, but their focus naturally is to represent their members’ interests. VCOG is at the table on behalf of all Virginians, and it does an impressive job.

Despite its presence and success during General Assembly sessions, however, VCOG’s primary function remains education.

One of its earliest projects was to collect Virginia attorney general opinions related to access issues and place them in an online archive for easy access when issues arose that had been addressed by AGs.

The organization fields questions from Virginians, including reporters, on any issue concerning access. The advice is solid and unemotional. VCOG also offers training on FOIA to government employees and, most important of all, it has become the state’s conscience on matters of governmental transparency.

“I remember Frosty telling me how important it was to just show up and wave the flag,” Rhyne recalled last week.

VCOG is now celebrating its 25th year of service to Virginians, and Megan Rhyne remains its enthusiastic leader and chief cheerleader. She can be excused for her exuberant description of VCOG.

“I think we’re pretty awesome,” she said.

I do as well. If you would like to participate in keeping local and state government agencies “in the sunshine,” an individual membership to VCOG costs a very modest $30. But member or not, you can call and ask for help anytime.

You can find everything you need to know at https://www.opengovva.org/.

 

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.