- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Virginia has some of the strictest open-meeting laws in the country while Maryland has some least restrictive, according to a study by newspapers in those states and across the country.

Virginia has the distinction, in part, because of a recent $93,000 payment from the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors. The board paid the money in a lawsuit brought by several newspapers over an illegally closed board meeting. The amount is for legal fees incurred by the Culpeper Citizen, the Culpeper Star-Exponent and the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled unanimously in September that the board violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by going into closed session to discuss a school-construction project.

“The law says that the board can go behind closed doors for negotiation of a contract,” said Lawrence Emerson, then editor of the Culpeper Citizen, which brought the lawsuit. “But the contract had already been approved. That was the whole crux, really, of our case.”

Frosty Landon, head of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, says the ability of judges to award attorney’s fees to victorious plaintiffs really gives teeth to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act enforcement.

Virginia lawmakers strengthened the state’s FOIA in 2000, increasing fines to $250 to $1,000 for first-time offenders — government employees who are found to have “willfully and knowingly” closed meetings or withheld information from the public.

Offenders are to be charged $1,000 to $2,500 for second and subsequent violations.

Still, the fines are rarely imposed because Circuit Court judges are often reluctant to punish first-time offenders who, most likely, were ignorant of the law’s requirements. Officials usually don’t violate a second time because “they’re not going to be able to use the excuse again that they just didn’t realize what their obligations were,” Mr. Landon said.

The inquiries were made in support of Sunshine Week, a national campaign that started yesterday to increase public support for open government. The effort is being funded in part by the Knight Foundation and is being led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Maryland newspapers that participated made unannounced visits to local emergency-planning commission offices to request copies of plans for emergency preparedness and for dealing with hazardous-material emergencies, according to the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association.

Maryland advocates for open government found state laws are not tough enough and are frustrated.

Though it’s a crime to deny access to a public document, critics say, the law is difficult to enforce and the $1,000 fine is rarely imposed.

Maryland has no agency that oversees public-records compliance. If a member of the press or a concerned resident thinks they have been denied access to a public record, they have to take their case to court.

Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., Queen Anne’s Republican, is a lawyer and has represented newspapers in FOIA cases. He also said the state has nice-sounding laws that have no teeth.


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