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Take a Look for Yourself

Regardless of whether one supports or disfavors President Obama’s stimulus plan, there’s one thing that just about everyone can agree on: we, the taxpayers, have a right to know where and how the stimulus money will be spent.


This is our money (that is, what money isn’t borrowed), and just as importantly, this is our government. Republican and Democrat alike, these are our representatives making policy decisions we elected them to do. We have the right (and some would say the duty) to examine the choices those leaders are making in our names and behalves.


The Obama administration started a Web site (Recovery.gov) to track stimulus expenditures, and many states, including Virginia, have started their own Web sites (stimulus.virginia.gov) to track the money those states will get.


It isn’t always easy to keep track of government spending. If a budget or spending project is put online, the Web sites are not always easy to find. Sometimes, an entire hundred-page budget might be put online as a complete document, which is great if you have the time and paper and ink to print it all out and go through it line by line, but is terrible if you want to find out how much the head of a particular department might be getting paid, or how much was being spent on raw materials for an infrastructure project.


Online budget databases are not uncommon. Virginia uses one called Commonwealth Data Point to track the state budget (datapoint.apa.virginia.gov). But databases are of limited use if they cannot be easily searched, aggregated or analyzed. They can also be difficult to navigate if you’re not familiar with either the government’s structure or accounting terminology.


For those who are not technologically savvy, or who cannot afford Internet access, or who would just prefer the certainty of going to the source, the Freedom of Information Act is the perfect tool for getting the information you want.


Every state in the union, as well as the federal government, has some kind of public records act that guarantees citizens the right to access their government’s records and meetings. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is considered one of the best acts in the country, (though there’s always room for improvement).


Any free Virginian can ask any local or state government, any governing body, any regional authority, any commission, committee or workgroup for the records they use and possess in the transaction of public business. Budgets, e-mail, expense reports, environmental impact reports, employment policies, databases, letters, photographs, memos, audio or video tape. If those in government use it for their jobs, it’s a public record that might have to be disclosed upon request.


It “might” have to be disclosed because FOIA also includes exemptions, meaning that if an e-mail or report contains, say, personnel information or material about an ongoing lawsuit, that information can either be blacked out before turning the rest of the record over, or the entire record may be withheld.


The exemptions exist as recognition that sometimes government records may need to be kept confidential because their release could jeopardize public safety or perhaps the government’s bargaining position in a contract negotiation. FOIA’s exemptions are discretionary, but there are other provisions within the Code of Virginia than might make disclosure absolutely off-limits, for instance, medical records. FOIA’s exemptions are to be interpreted narrowly to favor disclosure.


When it comes to money, you can ask for draft budgets, final budgets, or budgets by department. But there’s so much more: expense reports, cost estimates, accounts payable, accounts receivable, audits, bank statements and reconciliations, credit card receipts, grant files, invoices, ledgers, retirement fund reports and vouchers.


You can ask for whatever records you want. You can ask for one record, or 10 records or 100 records. You are limited only by what exemptions may be invoked, or what the government charges you to find and copy the records (FOIA allows the government to charge the actual, reasonable cost of providing the records).


And you do not have to tell the government why you want the records. FOIA does not include a “purpose” test that allows the government to pick and choose who has the “right” purpose for wanting the records and who has the “wrong” one. You could just be curious, you could be doing research, you might be publishing a community newsletter, or maybe you need more liner for your birdcage. It doesn’t matter: it’s your right as a citizen to inspect and/or copy the records for whatever use you choose.


Sunshine Week is a nationwide effort by access advocates like the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the print and broadcast media to highlight the importance of government records and meetings to an informed citizenry.


Sunshine Week always takes place from the Sunday through Saturday that includes March 16, the birthday of James Madison, who is often called the Patron Saint of transparency, and who famously stated in 1822, “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.”
We urge Virginia’s citizens this Sunshine Week to find out more about their government. Ask questions, look at records, attend meetings, and inspect budget reports. Always remind yourselves, each other, your elected officials and government employees: American democracy demands vigilance. It demands stewardship. It demands that we all stay involved.

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