Charlottesville Daily Progress
Friday, December 21, 2007

For a government official to set up a citizens’ advisory committee should be a positive move: good advice from the citizens, good PR for the department.

What could go wrong?

But in Madison County, any good intentions went wrong when Sheriff Erik J. Weaver refused to release information about his advisory committee or the citizens appointed to it.

So wrong, in fact, that the sheriff has just been fined $250 for willfully violating the state’s Freedom of Information law. Mr. Weaver says he might appeal that decision.

Open government experts say the “willful violation” ruling is significant. Even when Virginia judges find government officials at fault, they don’t impose penalties.

But without punishment, the law has no teeth. There is little incentive for government officials to pay attention to the law or to obey it.

The FOI law regarding constitutional officers, such as sheriffs, contains a loophole. Citizens’ advisory committees don’t have to follow open-meetings rules.

But they do have to follow open-records rules, including minutes of meetings and other documents.

Suit was filed against Sheriff Weaver by a former employee, Leigh Purdum, who said she “wanted to know who was my representative” on the advisory board.

Mr. Weaver said she had an ulterior motive for wanting to know the names of his advisors. “People that were supporting me [for re-election], she was attacking them” through letters and phone calls.

Mr. Weaver also said he received bad advice from the first lawyer he picked to handle the case, whom he would not name.

We’re not sure whether it should go to the sheriff or the anonymous lawyer, but here’s some advice:

If there is one core principle of our justice system, it is that the law must treat each of us equally.

Public information is open to every member of the public.

Government officials are not empowered to judge one person “worthy” of receiving the information and another “unworthy.”

It is to be hoped that this case sends the right message, in the right degree, about the seriousness of the Freedom of Information Act.

The law exists not for some arcane purpose or for some elite special interest; it exists for the most fundamental reason of all: to enable democracy to thrive. Citizens cannot participate in government when they don’t know what their government is doing.

And advocates for open government don’t support punishments for violations of law because they seek some kind of revenge against officials.

They just want the law to be effective, and penalties may be necessary to that end.

Public office is a public trust, and public information is an important part of that trust.

When officials grasp the seriousness of that responsibility, and act with appropriate respect, governments at all levels will be better and more equitably managed. | Open records are critical