Officials can't forget FOIA responsibility - The Daily Progress: News

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Officials can't forget FOIA responsibility

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Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2012 1:57 am | Updated: 3:23 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

It’s always a good thing when someone challenges members of government to be more open with the public.

It’s a rare thing when that challenge comes from within government itself.

But that’s exactly what’s going on in Lynchburg, where a board member of the Greater Lynchburg Transit Company is suing the board’s vice president over alleged failures to follow Virginia’s open-meetings law.

“…It’s about asserting the rights the Freedom of Information Act establishes for citizens and making sure those rights are respected at all times,” Brian Moore, attorney for board member Christian DePaul, told the (Lynchburg) News & Advance.

“What public bodies are doing, especially in times of crisis, is important. … We have to ensure the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act are always closely followed and respected in order to ensure citizens are allowed to properly participate in public business, to be informed and to avoid secrecy.”

Precisely.

Mr. DePaul has accused Vice President Lisa Dibble of failing to properly announce meetings, denying access to public meetings and failing to take proper meeting minutes.

That’s a powerful trifecta. If true, the allegations mean that citizens couldn’t know about meetings in order to attend; wouldn’t be admitted to meetings even if they did know about them; and couldn’t read the minutes of meetings to find out what went on after not being permitted to attend in person.

 In an episode last year in which the board needed to certify that a closed meeting had been conducted legally, Mr. DePaul dissented in the vote. He said he believed the meeting ranged into topics not permitted for closed session.

His one-page complaint about FOIA violations filed with the court on June 27 does not give any such details. What exactly, other than last year’s incident, has the board done wrong? Lack of specificity weakens the impact of the complaint. The court, not surprisingly, has asked for more details.

Still, it is good that the issue of government’s responsibility to the public is getting attention. It is all too easy for boards, commissions and councils to begin thinking of themselves as closed corporations, and to forget that they are in office to serve the public.

Democracy requires two-way communication between citizens and those elected or appointed to represent them. But citizens cannot express how they wish to be governed if they are kept in the dark about the issues being decided by their government.

The GLTC may well have some serious problems to fix. Meanwhile, other boards, commissions and councils should look on this contretemps as an object lesson — and brush up their own understanding of, and commitment to, freedom of information.