Freedom of Information laws have been on the books of the 50 states and the federal government for almost half a century. It was in 1967 that the federal Freedom of Information Act went into effect, laying the ground rules for how citizens could pry information from the federal government. Soon, states such as Virginia began enacting their own open-government laws.
The intent of the laws is simple and straightforward: to open government proceedings to its citizens, to make government documents accessible to the public and to give the public the tools to keep tabs on government and elected and appointed officials. Which is why the conduct of Pittsylvania County officials, as uncovered by the Register & Bee in a March 10 news article, is so perplexing. And also so disturbing.
Back in October, the paper was looking into the turmoil that surrounded the Pittsylvania County Department of Social Services for much of last year, leading up to the firing of DSS director Sherry Flanagan. Part of the paper’s research included a FOIA request to county officials for emails from and between DSS board members for a time period beginning before Flanagan was fired and immediately following her dismissal.
That request yielded emails from two of the eight board members, something that understandably raised red flags and questions, the biggest being, “Where are the emails from the other six board members?” The messages turned over, however, suggested there was additional correspondence out there, and the paper made a supplemental request for any additional documents. That resulted on one more email being given to the reporter.
The bulk of the emails turned over to the Register & Bee came from the account of Supervisor Ron Scearce, then the liaison from the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors to the DSS board. His correspondence was quickly obtained, because it came through his official county email account. The other members of the DSS board, all appointees of the Board of Supervisors, used their personal email addresses.
You may ask, “Well, what’s the problem with that?” The answer is simple: A county email address routes all correspondence through servers maintained by or on behalf of the county government, i.e., the taxpayers, while a personal email goes through the servers of Apple, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and a myriad of other providers, making it all but impossible for government to access and retain such communications as required by law.
The newspaper’s October request shined a spotlight on a serious, countywide problem that the Board of Supervisors and County Administrator David Smitherman should address as quickly as possible.
Simply put: Not a single member of any of the county’s local boards and commissions, all subject to FOIA, are provided with a county email address. This includes not only the social services board, but also the planning commission, the service authority and the board of zoning appeals, among others. And even more disturbing is that once a person is appointed to any of these boards, there is absolutely no requirement to attend any training about FOIA and open government laws whatsoever.
Virginia law is pretty clear on this topic. Any elected or appointed member of any public body who is not explicitly exempted from FOIA must receive a copy of relevant FOIA materials within two weeks of his election or appointment, and the person responsible for providing that information is the body’s administrator or legal counsel. State law also requires that public official must “read and become familiar with the provisions” of the law as part of his training for the position.
Though Virginia law doesn’t require elected and public officials use government email accounts, the information sent by those individuals that are regarded as “public documents” are still subject to FOIA. Having a government email account, that operates through a government-maintained server, just makes things simpler for all involved.
Scott Budd, the county’s IT director, told the Register & Bee that, to his knowledge, no appointed board and commission members have ever been provided county email addresses in his 20 years on the job. And a big part of the rationale appears to be cost: Additional licenses would have to be purchased.
Cost would also appear to be the reason for the lack of FOIA classes provided to boards and commissions. The current DSS board chairman has been in his post since October 2017 and has never received any such training.
To the officials in Chatham, our message is that these practices must change, and must change immediately. County email addresses should be assigned to all appointed members of boards that are subject to FOIA. Furthermore, there should be a requirement a requirement that they actually use them. The county administrator and county attorney should immediately work to make arrangements for these boards to receive in-depth training on FOIA and it must become an annual event.
The news media and open-government advocates just concluded the observation of Sunshine Week 2019 which, each year, turns the spotlight on freedom of information and the public’s right to know. Sunshine Week’s message is quite simple: This is the people’s government; open it up.