A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press, must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know. These are troubled times. There is no greater safety valve for discontent and cynicism about the affairs of government than freedom of expression in any form. … — U.S. District Judge Murray I. Gurfein
I learned some lessons from my recent legal battle with Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones over his stubborn refusal to reveal why Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall suddenly departed City Hall.
Unfortunately, as it exists today, Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act allows top government bureaucrats to cover up the incompetence of employees and craft secret deals behind closed doors that keep taxpayers in the dark. Slap a “personnel” sticker on the file and put it in the deep freezer. This loophole in Virginia’s open-government law, coupled with lax enforcement of consequences, allows officials get away with this.
It’s ethically offensive that the terms of an employment and severance contract of the highest-ranking official in Richmond city government can be shielded by labeling it a personnel matter. The law needs to be fixed.
What’s the mayor’s excuse? He and his attorneys claim that they are entitled to this nonsensical secrecy citing the act’s personnel exemption and invoking lawyer-client privilege in an effort to keep the confidentiality agreements and Marshall’s severance package from the public. The only legal concern here is that the documents were negotiated and prepared by lawyers.
Richmond District Court Judge Joi Taylor disagreed, in part.
She said that she would release the confidentiality agreements, signed by some City Council members as a condition by the mayor to learn about Marshall, if I submitted another request asking for them in writing. I promptly did and had them within 24 hours. The judge also said that the city needed to provide additional financial information concerning Marshall’s departure. That, too, has been asked and answered.
All this secrecy has no place in public policy. If the details of employment and departure from public employment can be shielded, the city could enter into outrageous contracts and never need to reveal what’s happening to public money.
What else are they hiding?
And if our elected representatives on City Council are so unaware of their responsibilities to the people who put them there that they’ll gladly sign away their dignity and disregard their fiscal duty, perhaps they need to go home.
With Virginia conducting its two-year review of the commonwealth’s Freedom of Information Act, open-government advocates need to ensure that special attention is paid to how the personnel exemption is repeatedly abused when it comes to public employees.
Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government encourages residents and journalists to share their experiences with the coalition and the Freedom of Information Advisory Council. “Everyone benefits with open government and accountability,” she says.
Virtually every media outlet in the city submitted requests for details about Marshall’s departure — and all were swatted away like annoying mosquitoes.
I never intended to get into a lawsuit over this information. But when I saw other members of news media — so-called watchdogs — basically rolling over when the city refused to give the information requested, it made me angry. Reporters are supposed to challenge authority and keep government honest.
When I came of age in The Denver Post newsroom back in 1974, former President Richard M. Nixon had not yet resigned and veteran and cub reporters alike groused between drinks at the nearest bar about being forced to switch from manual typewriters to IBM Selectrics. The guys in the back shop still used hot-type machines. And you could watch the behemoth presses thunder and shake the floor while they spewed out the daily newspaper.
The old-school wisdom in that smoke-filled newsroom was that a freedom of information act was for sissies who didn’t know squat about being a real reporter. Real reporters didn’t need some fancy law in order to do their jobs. Real reporters knew how to read documents upside-down on desks and simultaneously sweet-talk secretaries, eavesdrop, cajole sources and even check for documents tossed in the trash.
Flash forward 40 years. Most reporters and concerned citizens have grown up with freedom of information acts and routinely use them to pry loose information that government bureaucrats would prefer to keep quiet. But remember that such acts aren’t the only tools reporters can use. Instead of rolling over, reporters must step up and fight for the information.
Today the U.S. government answers more than four million information requests a year, the majority from veterans and senior citizens seeking information about their benefits and service records. In 1966, the U.S. law was the third of its kind enacted, after Sweden and Finland. But today more than 60 other countries, most recently Uganda and Germany, have enacted similar laws that open access to government information, according to freedominfo.org.
Meanwhile, in the words of the late, great Molly Ivins, I hope the reporters in this town will get their backbones in motion and “keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”
And learn how to read upside-down. S
Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.