I read with interest the "Public in the dark" article in your July 29 edition, which gave examples of the increasing manipulation - or outright ignoring - of the state's Freedom of Information Act by various functionaries in government and other publicly funded organizations.
Blaming politicians and bureaucrats who are operating on extracurricular agendas for refusing to abide by the letter and spirit of the state FOIA is like blaming groundhogs for digging holes - it is simply what they do. Blaming law enforcement agencies for refusing to release information that is clearly part of the public record is like blaming mice for chewing through the wires of your favorite old car. That, too, is what they do.
The state FOIA is supposed to be the rifle that rids the public of the groundhogs in public life. It is supposed to be the trap that rids the public of rodents who are short circuiting our confidence in government.
But the FOIA is neither if the media does not regularly, clearly, repeatedly and vigorously identify those people in public life who are intentionally keeping the public in the dark for no other reason than to hide extralegal behavior.
State press associations are merely back-slapping purveyors of industry awards if they do not maintain a pool of expert lawyers and the funding to use them when clear cases of FOIA violations emerge.
Public servants and entities using public money need to know that a legal sledgehammer will be dropped on them if they weasel out of their obligations under the FOIA. In many cases, these FOIA violations occur in localities where the media operates on a shoestring and cannot afford to bring the litigation that brings light to the shadows - and the perpetrators know it.
But a robust, well-funded state press association made up of newspapers, radio, TV and digital media that sends a clear, unequivocal, unified message of its intent to pursue both FOIA violations and legislators who refuse to tighten up the FOIA creates an entirely different field of battle.
At that point, FOIA manipulators will get the message that a warning shot across the bow is merely a courtesy preceding an outright legal bombardment.
One legislative reform that will bring an abrupt end to many of these FOIA violations would be a statutory provision requiring those individuals or entities who use public funds to unsuccessfully defend their refusals to adhere to the FOIA to pay out of their own pockets for the cost of the legal counsel both they and the complainants used in litigating the case.
As it stands now, these violators arm themselves with public money to lawyer up in defense of the indefensible - which is the most inexcusable of all possible situations.
Brett Phillips is a former member of the FOIA Committee of the Virginia Press Association and brought a number of successful FOIA actions in that state.