- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

RICHMOND | Unless you’re looking for death certificates, hospital inspections or a handful of other official state documents, chances are you can find them online in Virginia.

A new survey finds that Virginia ranks among the top states when it comes to posting public records online.

In a partnership with the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ FOI committee, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists, Associated Press bureaus surveyed state and local governments to see whether the Internet is improving public-records access.

Virginia tied for fifth in the nationwide survey released as part of Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to raise public awareness about the importance of open government and access to public records. Texas was the only state that posted documents in all 20 categories surveyed; Mississippi had the least with four.

In Virginia, only records related to school inspections and safety, school bus inspections, hospital inspections and death certificates were not posted online.

The state also did not get credit for posting personal financial-disclosure reports for candidates online, but that information is made available through the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit that has posted the data on the Web since 1997.

Other records, such as nursing home and child care center inspections, disciplinary actions against lawyers, and Department of Transportation contracts and bridge inspections, are only a few clicks away.

Virginia was not alone by withholding death certificates from the Internet. Only eight states posted that information online.

Virginia law bars anyone other than immediate family members from accessing death certificates for 50 years, said Phil Giaramita, Virginia Department of Health spokesman.

“Even if it’s an uncle, whether you come into the office or go online, according to the code of Virginia, you’re not able to get a death certificate for 50 years,” Mr. Giaramita said.

Birth certificates are withheld from the public for 100 years, he said.

With respect to inspections of the state’s 100 hospitals, Mr. Giaramita said his agency will consider posting those online. The hospitals are inspected once a year by federal officials, and the state inspects them every other year.

Those documents, like the school building and bus inspections, are available in person, just not online.

Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the school and bus inspection records are maintained locally, and posting the records online would be up to the local officials.

Mr. Pyle pointed to the “wealth of information online” at the department’s Web site, including student test scores, teacher certification, dropout information and other achievement measures.

The department is redesigning the Web site to make it more user-friendly, he said.

The site was one of the first the state government created, he said, and is among the largest in terms of the amount of information available. The site averages about 500,000 hits per month, with even more Web traffic when major achievement scores are released.

“This kind of information equips parents and other interested citizens to ask the right questions, and in addition to the accountability ratings, just providing this information provides accountability,” Mr. Pyle said.

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