FOCUS ON FOIA
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.
Taxpayers should have easy access to the records they paid for
Two news stories that dealt with open government issues caught my attention in recent days.
One was in the Richmond Times-Dispatch May 12 when reporter Zachary Reid wrote that the Richmond School Board is making efforts at being more transparent about how it spends tax dollars.
He reported that the school system will begin posting a searchable registry of all the checks it issues. It will be one of the first localities in Virginia to post its check registry online and, as one school board member said, it will “allow anyone to see where every dollar is spent”
The School Board is to be commended for its move toward transparency. This is the same School Board that invited the public to meet and question the finalists for the school superintendent position.
The other story that got my attention was in our Free Lance-Star.
Reporter Jeff Branscome reported on a discussion about credit card spending by Spotsylvania County officials.
Spotsylvania Supervisor Timothy McLaughlin suggested that monthly county credit card statements be posted on Spotsylvania’s website. “If you want to be transparent, I would like to see that happen,” he said.
Supervisor Gary Skinner, however, said that recommendation would result in more work for county staff. “My concern would be when you put it on a public website … who’s going to answer all of those questions that you’re going to get?” Skinner asked.
Credit card statements of public agencies are public records, just like the check registries maintained by governments in Virginia.
Let’s remember that the public—those people who might ask questions about the bills—are the ones who are paying those credit card bills. More than anyone, they deserve to have answers.
There was a time not so many years ago that the public had to almost beg for basic information.
For example, anyone wanting to know about a restaurant inspection would have to file a Freedom of Information request. Sometimes, those requests were ignored.
Now, just a few clicks on the computer and you can read the inspection reports for every restaurant, even school cafeterias, in the state. (My favorite was the city steakhouse that received a critical violation for having the bug-zapper over the food-preparation area).
The state also has online reports on fights (they call them altercations), drugs and weapons found at schools in each locality of the state.
You can find out if your doctor has ever been disciplined or had malpractice problems. The same with lawyers.
The more information public agencies put online, the fewer questions employees will have to answer.
Public records are compiled and filed away by public agencies every day. Taxpayers’ dollars paid to have those records compiled.
There should be an easy way for them to see what they bought
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