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An effort to look at electronic reporting forms reveals the high cost of public information.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Virginia relies on financial disclosure to keep government honest. What good is disclosure if no one can actually see the information? Why, none at all.
Secrecy surely was not the intent when Virginia shifted last year to electronic filing of financial disclosure forms for state employees and elected officials.
But it likely will be the outcome if massive numbers of records are sought for review — say, of 525 Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control employees.
Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper, which has the ABC under intense scrutiny these days, stumbled upon this irony of the information age when it asked recently to see employee records. A reporter was able to examine paper records up until 2011, but for security reasons was denied access to the electronic forms.
Each form would have to be downloaded individually and printed by the director, and sole employee, of the state’s Conflict of Interest Office, the newspaper reported last week. The cost to get the 2012 data: $1,200 — to be paid by the newspaper.
Any individual who wanted to see the information would be hit with the same tab.
The state requires the financial disclosure forms, and mandates that they be kept for five years. But, office director Patrick Mayfield said, the forms are not audited.
He said the request for agency-wide data was unprecedented. That may be, but it’s not unreasonable. The newspaper has reported extensively on the ABC since a show of force in the April arrest of an innocent college student became public and drew wide condemnation.
State Sen. Creigh Deeds called the price barrier “outrageous,” adding, “If that’s going to require a change in law, so be it. If the public doesn’t have full access to those disclosure forms, they’re not disclosure forms.”
The press is supposed to act as a watchdog on government. As are citizens themselves. Cost must not make that oversight prohibitive. It’s about all Virginia has.