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Posted at 6:15 PM ET, 12/ 8/2010

A council Virginia needs to keep

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

It's ironic that the recent report by Gov. Robert McDonnell's government reform commission is garnering attention for its recommendation to shutter the council that helps the media and citizens understand their rights to public information.

The FOIA Advisory Council has been around since 2000, when it was created by the General Assembly. Even though it employs only two staffers and answers hundreds of Freedom of Information questions every year, the reform commission says that's not enough to escape the scalpel.

I find that troubling. Of Virginia's thousands of boards and commissions, the FOIA council is the only one from which I've received a direct and immediate benefit.

When I began reporting in Virginia last year, one of the first calls I placed was to the council. I've always found it easy to get someone on the phone to advise on how FOIA law pertains to whatever story I happen to be working on. Could the Alexandria school district legally treat every one of my questions as a FOIA request and charge me for the pertinent documents? Yes, apparently they could.

Who would fill the council's shoes if it got the axe? The attorney general's office, which the reform commission apparently thinks has time to answer about 1,700 questions per year (the annual average from 2005 to 2009).

And not all of those questions are from my fellow journalists, as the Charlottesville Daily Progress pointed out. Last year, the council issued 13 formal opinions -- none of them prompted by media. And of its 1,678 informal opinions, 910 requests came from officials, 618 from citizens and just 150 from media.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government is obviously against folding the council. Along with the Daily Progress, the Roanoke Times has also criticized the unfortunate idea.

Now, I can easily get behind some of the commission's other recommendations -- like eliminating groups with seemingly more words in their titles than actual accomplishments. Like the State Advisory Council to the National Legal Services Corporation (a group that's currently inactive) or the Polygraph Examiners Advisory Board.

But I really do need the FOIA Advisory Council to determine whether I should put up a fuss, or just accept government agencies denying me access to information.

Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | December 8, 2010; 6:15 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, media  
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