FOIA and ethics

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) is a great tool. It helps citizens and news organizations get real information to use and report on.

As I cover various FOIA activities and articles, I find myself wondering about the ethics involved for the public body to try hiding documents about the public business, and otherwise actively try to circumvent the law. Some of the documentation requested can be sensitive, and there are opportunities to view such information at times when the custodian wishes to redact the portions not allowed to be divulged.

If a situation is so serious that it needs to be kept secret, how can we reconcile that with an ethical professional life?

What ethical responsibility is there for record custodians to not release documents and other information, given that the subject matter is either salacious or derogatory? Is the idea that the public, who rightfully should know the business of their government, can’t handle the sensitivity of certain issues?

Ethical lapses come in many forms. Financial, moral, personal. Stealing money is understood easily, at least the motivation for it is understood usually. Moral lapses are less easily understood, since they usually involve external influences and the lack of self control. Personal ethical problems are what I consider to be whether a person is honest, acts in good faith and is not a threat to a community.

What I have trouble with here is that if an infraction of the rules involves either the money of the public body or the morals of it’s members, I think the public has a right to know. Do officials and politicians regularly commit offenses that are so unfortunate and of such a low moral standard that their actions and the resulting discipline should be kept secret?

Obviously, the fact that you are a public employee does not open your private life to scrutiny. The problem here is that officials, both elected and appointed, are able to go on with their lives as if nothing has happened. If there is a victim, does he or she think the information should be public? If there is a large sum of money or a situation with misappropriation of official funds by someone, either employee or parent, shouldn’t we know this?

My feeling and opinion is that the really embarrassing things are saved for this secret treatment. Sexual misconduct, whether with another employee or with someone in your your charge or a subordinate, should be made public as soon as it becomes known. There is no excuse for keeping it secret except to protect the privilege and jobs of those who commit such offenses.

We regularly trust our children to a huge education system that is usually overburdened, underfunded, and targeted for net cuts in their budgets every year. The ethical operation of those schools is paramount in our society. Not only because it is the law and the professional way, but also because there are millions of children that count on us as citizens to watch over their schools.

As citizens, we trust the police and other first responders to uphold the law, respond to emergencies, promote the public welfare, among other things. We spend billions of dollars in Virginia alone each year to accomplish this, and as a society we look at it as a necessary expense. We also trust that the professionals involved will do their occupations in an open and truthful manner.

Neither of these examples of public bodies are required, under certain exemptions to the law, to disclose documents that are considered too sensitive for the public to hear about or see. Make no mistake, as an employee, I would not want my performance evaluations and my other employment history to become public.

However, would acts or offenses that are distasteful and embarrassing get a break because it reflects badly on that public body?  Would the rules of non fraternization, for example, be something that would still remain secret? Would the offenses themselves, however described or characterized, be part of a personnel exemption under the law?

Why do we, as citizens, even need to ask these questions? If you or I are charged with a crime, or are in trouble at work over improprieties, would we get the same privacy extended to us in all cases such as I am discussing? I think we all know the answer to that question.

The delicate balance of privacy and open government certainly is not a new concern. But as we progress into an even more technological age, the ease with which records and documents can be stored and retrieved is revolutionizing open government. We need a solution that meets the current laws of FERPA, NCLB, and FOIA, and the Constitution, to ensure that not only can information that truly should not see the light of day doesn’t, but also that which is proper, does.

It is a philosophical question mostly, because the idea of open government will never be popular with some people, and the exemptions provided for in the law will never be enough disclosure for others. If we interpret the law liberally, and in the intent with which it states and with which it is written, we shouldn’t have trouble deciding what information about public bodies should be kept secret and which should not.





Published by

Mark Brooks

Independent Journalist/Photographer --- Retired Land Surveyor originally from Colorado. USN Veteran. Involved as a citizen and journalist in politics and open government locally and sometimes statewide. Interests: photography, music, justice and equality for everyone.

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