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A proposed bill would make it harder for the public to know if the state is prepared for the next big storm.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
One lesson Hurricane Katrina taught coastal states like Virginia is to think about the unthinkable and prepare to deal with worst-case scenarios.
When the best the commonwealth has to offer is not good enough to protect huge swaths of the population, the public should know. Then those in harm’s way can pressure state and local officials to improve preparedness when it matters — before disaster strikes.
A bill that sailed through the Virginia House with nary a dissenting vote, though, would exempt disaster preparedness plans and policies from mandatory disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The bill (HB 2280) is now before the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee, which should give it a closer look.
The bill’s patron, Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, filed the bill two weeks after The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk printed a story based on a consultant’s report that the state is poorly prepared should a major storm like Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, or some other serious emergency hit Hampton Roads.
The paper reported it had obtained the consultant’s preliminary assessment after state officials had refused to release it in response to open records requests.
Ward told The Pilot that she filed her bill at the request of a constituent worried about safeguarding hospital emergency plans, and she didn’t realize the FOIA amendment could prevent the release of documents such as those the newspaper acquired as the basis for its report.
The apparently unintended effect, though, could be to put off-limits information of interest vital to the public’s safety.
Virginians have a need — indeed, a responsibility — to know if the state is prepared to respond effectively in the event of a large-scale disaster.
The amended wording falls under a section of the open records law that exempts plans and information that, by their disclosure, “would jeopardize the safety of any person.” The irony, should the House bill pass into law unchanged, should not be lost on the state’s senators.
Ward told The Pilot that rather than withdraw her bill, the Senate should amend it to narrow its scope to that which she intended. Indeed.
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