Dick Hammerstrom, a local news editor at The Free Lance-Star, is an advocate for open government and serves on  several statewide organizations that urge transparency. You can email him at

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Let’s talk transparency

Welcome to the first edition of Focus on FOIA, a blog devoted to open-government issues.  FOIA, of course, is our shorthand for the Freedom of Information Act,  the series of laws designed to keep government meetings and records open to the public.

Whether these laws are useful and effective depends on how well public officials understand them and adhere to them. Equally important, I think, is whether citizens insist on government transparency.

But this blog will be about  more than just FOIA. We’ll discuss court access and records stored for us in the courthouse, and other  ways the public can be denied information.  First Amendment restrictions, such as censorship and the denial of free speech rights, also prohibit the free flow of information.

Since I draw a paycheck from a media company—one that takes  its role as a government  watchdog seriously—much of what I write about will be media efforts, successful or otherwise, to keep government honest and open.

You’ll find factual information about access issues, sometimes my opinions   and I’ll also share stories from websites and mailing lists.

Though I’ve been involved in access issues for years, I’m certainly not a know-it-all about open government.

For about a decade, I’ve been chairman of the   Freedom of Information Committee of the Virginia Press Association and serve as vice president of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, an organization of journalists, government officials, lawyers and others who strongly believe that government should stay open.   Earlier this year, I received the George Mason Award from the Virginia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.  It was given mostly for my FOIA work and  was particularly meaningful because it came from fellow Virginia journalists.

I’m a local news editor at The Free Lance-Star and worked as a reporter and editor at papers in North Carolina and Virginia before arriving here more than 16 years ago.

We don’t need to look too far to see that people want access to government.  Just this summer, we’ve seen examples around here.

In Fredericksburg, some confusion on the part of a few council members resulted in a meeting that failed to meet legal requirements.  In Stafford County, the Board of Supervisors had to rescind its vote on a waste-to-energy program because the decision  was made with little attempt at transparency. These decisions were met with complaints from residents.

So start looking for Focus on FOIA on Let’s start a dialogue.


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