March is full of activities like National Women’s Month, International Women’s Day and more (I found this really wonderful site noting some of the March celebrations and links – wonderful teachers’s resource!)
Yet there are two celebrations which are particularly important to me: Sunshine Week (March 11-17) and National FOI – Freedom of Information – Day (March 16).(By the way, there is an International FOI/Right to Know Day on Sept. 28).
While I have seen a lot of information about FOI on the national level. There certainly has not been much discussion at the State or Local government levels here. Perhaps a large part of that is that there have not been as many highly controversial Legislative activities involving FOI this year. They seem to be a bit preoccupied in Richmond this year on topics like vaginal probes. In some ways, that might be a good thing as when FOI is a hot topic it is because someone is pushing to remove citizen access to information.
So, that leaves me with the local level to explore. I missed the last Christiansburg Town Council Meeting (I think that makes a total of 3 misses in 4 years) but I had an important date with this darned flu bug going around and I decided to be selfish and not share it with others. Fortunately, the Town of Christiansburg website has a video of that meeting available for citizens to view. In the March 6th Agenda Packet, there is a copy of the Town of Christiansburg Strategic Communications Plan. At the early part of the meeting, Information Officer, Becky Wilburn gives a presentation.
My perceptions concerning open government is Christiansburg, VA are based upon several years of attending public meetings, making FOI requests, and learning all that I could about a citizen’s right to know about what their government does. At the beginning of that process, open government in Christiansburg was, in my opinion, abysmal! Citizen participation was not encouraged. I hit brick walls when requesting information. Elected officials had little understanding of citizen and their own rights under the Freedom of Information Act. The website the Town had at that time contained enough information that it could easily have been depicted as a two-sided sign, one side of which said “welcome to citizen information” and the other side saying “leaving citizen information”. While Town Council meeting minutes were available, the minutes of the Planning Commission were virtually non-existent. Public input was not something that was actively pursued, rather it was a matter of public notices being posted behind potted plants or out of the way boards in a couple of public buildings.
“Business as usual” was already being challenged by the Roanoke Times before I started doing anything with FOI/open government. Slowly, I saw things start to shift and that shift gained momentum, al beit slowly, for a couple of years. Then, 2 years ago, the decision was made to hire an information officer. Enter Becky Wilburn. Suddenly, rather than “slogging through knee deep mud” to make progress, I saw the Town hit the “Autoban in a Jaguar!”
Becky Wilburn has been the driving force in accomplishing a tremendous change towards Open Government in Christiansburg. However, she could not have done this alone. Town Council and Town Manager Barry Helms had to make it possible and they did!!
Christiansburg now has a vibrant and informative website that continues to grow. Requests for information are quickly and efficiently handled and that process is made easier by the webpage that tells people exactly how to go through that process. Public input is actively sought via surveys included with utility bills from the town and through public input meetings.The video that I linked to here is but one of many stored on the website available for citizens to view. If you can’t make a Town Council Meeting, you can usually see it on your computer within a couple of days of the actual meeting! Agenda, Agenda Packets, and Meeting Minutes are for you to view. It only takes a click to sign up for email notifications to keep you informed of town events/meetings. There is now an Emergency Notification System that you can sign up for to provide you with important alerts. Oh, and did I mention that the Town Code and Comprehensive Plan are available online now.
There have been some big changes but, as noted in the video, both Town Council and our Information Officer are aware it is a work in progress. There is more that can be done AND movement is being made in that direction. However, it is important to note that there has been tremendous change in open government in Christiansburg.
All of this work requires one other element to be truly effective. It requires citizens learning about their government and taking the time to be involved. It is the citizen’s government and the citizen’s town! It takes people choosing to be involves and to have a voice in government. That voice needs to be heard when members of the public feel strongly about something town government is doing. It should not be a voice raised only in argument or conflict, but should be a voice that acknowledges good work as well.
So for my part in things, my thanks to the elected officials, management, and staff of the Town of Christiansburg for making such significant improvements in transparency, open government, and citizen participation.
It is, indeed, a Happy Sunshine Week!