Virginia's first full-time Freedom of Information office is already averaging almost two inquiries a day, despite a late summer start and little fanfare. Executive Director Maria Everett told her FOI Advisory Council in late November that e-mail, phone, and written contacts had exceeded 130, with three in every four coming almost equally from citizens and government officials. Media inquiries accounted for the remainder.
The office, one of only half a dozen in the country, was created by the 2000 General Assembly to offer advisory interpretations of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, to mediate access disputes informally, to provide state wide training on information access, and to produce educational materials about the state's "right to know" statute. The legislature appropriated $329,000 for a two-year trial. Funds are earmarked mostly for salaries for one or two lawyers and an assistant.
Everett was selected for the post of executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory council by E. M. Miller, Jr., director of the Division of Legislative Services. A senior attorney with the division, Everett has served as counsel to the House Committees on General Laws and Interstate Cooperation since 1990. She earned a B.S. degree from Virginia Tech and a J.D. degree from the George Mason University School of Law. During the past two years, she served as counsel to the legislature's FOI study commission.
State Librarian Nolan Yelich serves on the twelve member council, along with representatives of local government, the General Assembly, the office of attorney general, the media, and the public at large. The chairman, Del. Chip Woodrum, D-Roanoke, led the two-year study that proposed the office. Other members of the FOI Advisory Council include the director of the Division of Legislative Services or his designee; David Hallock of Richmond, with the law firm of Williams, Mullen, Clark, and Dobbins; John Stewart Bryan III of Richmond, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Media General Inc.; W. Wat Hopkins of Blacksburg, associate professor, Virginia Tech; Sen. R. Edward Houck,D-Spotsylvania; John B. Edwards of Smithfield, editor of The Smithfield Times ;Roger C. Wiley of Richmond, partner, Hefty and Wiley; David E. Anderson of Richmond, partner, McGuire, Woods, Battle, and Boothe; and Martika Parson of Richmond, office of the attorney general. The council's online address is http://dls.state.va.us/groups/foiacouncil/ops/00/welcome.htm. Everett handles day-to-day operations; the council assists in formulating long-term policy initiatives.
In late December, the office posted its first nine advisory opinions on the Internet. Most were written at the request of citizens or public officials. In the past, FOI opinions were given only to government officials from the office of the attorney general, and usually took many months to prepare. If citizens believed an official was violating open-government rules, the only recourse for the most part was to file a civil lawsuit.
Everett said she did not have any preconceived notions of how many inquiries the office would receive four months into its existence. "It certainly shows that there are lot of questions out there." In at least two cases, conflicts were resolved. "Behavior changed," she said.
To help promote the new office, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government distributed more than 2,100 posters in late December to media, local government offices, and all of the state's public libraries. The double-laminated four-color posters were produced in cooperation with the advisory council.Local government associations, the Virginia Library Association, and the Library of Virginia provided mailing labels. Costs for design, production, and shipping were partially offset by grants from the Virginia Association of Broadcasters and the Virginia Press Association. For more information about the poster project, go to http://www.vpa.net/stories/vcogdec222000.htm. (If your library did not get a poster, e-mail email@example.com and the coalition will be happy to send you one.)
The creation of the FOI office was urged by the open-government coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan gr advocates increased access to public records and government meetings. Members include VLA, the Library of Virginia, and the Virginia Association of Law Librarians, as well as media groups, individual citizens, the Virginia Municipal League, and the Virginia Association of Counties. The coalition's web site is http://www.opengovva.org.