The lessons from the recently adjudicated Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the Town of Lovettsville are not the errors made in processing the request for public records. The missteps that resulted in the violations, fines and penalties so clearly trespassed on the basic elements of the law that they would be difficult to repeat by anyone attempting to comply with its requirements.
In essence, the case showed that an inexperienced but otherwise diligent town employee charged with fulfilling the FOIA request was poorly advised by superiors who should have served her—and the community—better.
Those clear violations aside, Judge Snow’s thoughtful analysis of the evidence in that case offers an important reminder to all our elected representatives about their conduct on social media sites, and particularly platforms shielded from view of the general public. Those interactions in secret, private or restricted online spaces still create public records when public business is being discussed.
Last year, members of our School Board came under justified criticism for being members of another private, invitation-only Facebook group that was focused on public policies falling under their purview. While the level of their participation in that group’s activities remains unclear, the forum provided the potential for exchanges that easily could have qualified as a public meeting under the commonwealth’s open government rules. Members of the public being held outside that forum should not be left wondering what their representatives are saying, or even what they are being told, on the other side of that cyber wall.
Most disturbing is that many of these elected representatives campaigned on themes that included promoting greater transparency and public involvement in their local government. That cannot be accomplished when constituents are being excluded from the conversation.