This week, March 11 through 17 marks the eighth year of Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort launched by the American Society of News Editors to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Sunshine Week is always scheduled some time around March 16, which is the birthday of the patron saint of open government, and a Virginia hero, James Madison.
During Sunshine Week journalists, civic groups, libraries, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know offer a variety of articles, editorials, programs, demonstrations and discussions designed to educate the general public about how the government’s records are actually their records, that the government’s meetings are their meetings. They have a right to see records and attend meetings. Access to both is essential for the full and informed participation in the democratic process.
We love Sunshine Week here at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. We love hearing people talk about what open government means to them. We love seeing the light go on inside someone’s mind when they understand how the government’s business is their business.
We especially like this week because it’s a time when everyone is interested in what we do here at VCOG week in and week out, day in and day out, year after year. Since 1996, VCOG has been the state’s leading voice promoting the citizen’s right to know.
A lot of people don’t know we exist. And a lot of people don’t know they need us…until they need us. And we’re glad to be there.
For starters, our website is a chock full of useful information geared towards helping Virginia’s citizens, press and government understand their rights and responsibilities under the state’s Freedom of Information Act in particular, and other access issues generally.
At www.opengovva.org you’ll find the full text of the FOIA, which is updated annually and which is accompanied by an FAQ section. There is an archive of opinions issued by courts, the FOIA Council and the Attorney General interpreting FOIA (it’s the only place you’ll find all these sources in one searchable database). We have a FOIA records-request letter template -- just fill in the blanks and voilà! -- and another form for submitting FOIA questions to us via email. We take phone and written inquiries, too, and always try to get an answer to you within 48 hours.
And I’m just getting started!
Also on our website, you’ll find current and back issues of a our print newsletter, The Sunshine Report, as well as most of our monthly electronic newsletter. While on the site, you can sign up for these newsletters, as well as for a daily tip sheet on current stories affecting access and free speech. We maintain a blog on access issues and invite the public to comment on our entries.
Each year we maintain a list of bills we follow each year in the General Assembly. The lists go back to 1998 and are the historical record of VCOG’s lobbying efforts. The rules for nonprofit 501(c)(3) entities like VCOG allow for some lobbying (limited by a total percentage of your budget and time), so we’re there every year to promote bills we think are good for transparency in Virginia and those we think negatively impact the public’s right to know.
(It doesn’t matter to us who sponsors either kind of bill. That is, we don’t support or oppose bills because they are sponsored by a Democrat or a Republican. We are a non-partisan organization, too, and we know that members of both parties have had moments that brought bright sunshine to the Commonwealth as well as moments of dark, dark clouds.)
When not roaming the halls of the legislature, or keeping our website up to date, VCOG is out and about around the state. We conduct FOIA training sessions to newsrooms. We give talks and training sessions to citizen groups. We do seminars for government records managers. You’ll find us quoted in news article and as guests on television and radio.
We participate in work groups studying access issues, frequently providing supplemental research provided by the law student intern we hire each summer.
We do all this through annual membership dues and interest from an endowment. We have over 170 individual and institutional members. Dues are on a sliding scale and have remained a reasonable $30 for individuals even in the face of increased operational costs.
You don’t have to be a member of VCOG to take advantage of any of our services, but if you value open government, if you’ve attended a local government meeting or asked a state agency for records, please consider joining our ranks.
We’re here for Virginia. And we’re here for you.