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Virginia Lawmakers Fight For More Transparency

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Want to see documents outlining the process that created regulations in Virginia for utilities or railroads? Forget about it, because the State Corporation Commission operates in the dark. Its documents are exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act as the result of a 2011 Virginia Supreme Court case. Fairfax County Del P. Scott Surovell wants to change that.

"I think an organization that has that much power ought to do its business with maximum transparency," he says. "I think Justice Louis Brandeis said that sunshine is the best disinfectant. I couldn't agree more."

This year, Surovell introduced a bill that would make the State Corporation Commission subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The bill was referred to a subcommittee, where it was killed. But members of the panel took an action that open-records advocates are cheering. They referred the issue to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a panel that makes recommendations to legislators.

"To the extent that an insurance company or a utility is communicating with their regulator about matters, I think that should be public," he says.

Advocates for open government say citizens should have a right to know how Virginia's regulations are created.

"It's a ridiculous situation where we have this body that regulates all kinds of state utilities and serves as this regulatory body, and we can't know anything about it," says Mark Caramanica, Freedom of Information director with Arlington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Caramanica says he's hoping the advisory council will recommend opening up the regulatory agency to scrutiny from the public and and the press.

"It's high time that the legislature made that body subject to the open records laws," he says.

Last year, the Center for Public Integrity gave Virginia a failing grade for transparency because the public has such limited access to information.

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