For most Virginians, spring begins with the blooming of crocuses and snowdrops in the garden, or the coming of the Vernal Equinox (March 20 or 21) or the NCAA basketball tournament called March Madness. But for those of us living on dirt roads, spring begins with the appearance of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s gravel trucks and road graders sent to restore our roads from winter’s havoc.
This year has been especially difficult; rain, snow melt and clay soil combined to spawn a record number of puddles, potholes and bumpy ruts in Northern Virginia’s hundreds of miles of unpaved roads, slowing traffic to add several minutes to necessary trips to pavement, to civilization and occasionally to an auto repair shop. And lightly traveled dirt roads are usually plowed out last, adding occasional “snowed in” days to winter’s charms.
Dry, warm spring weather allows VDOT to launch us on perhaps 10 months of normal road conditions, until next Christmas, give or take a week or two. For those who revere dirt roads it is worth the wait. Why so?
Consider the benefits of unpaved roads. First, they help preserve our historic rural area, dirt roads remaining much as they were when Johnny Reb faced the Yankees at the battles of Unison, Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. They discourage development, thus saving our scenery and holding down our taxes. They limit vehicle speeds, allowing one to see and enjoy the birds, wild animals and flowers that populate the roadside, and the cattle and horses grazing in the neighboring pastures.
Dirt roads are friendly to photographers, hikers, runners, cyclists and horse’s hooves. They are safer for small children, their aging grandparents and their household pets. Driving on them becomes a quiet pleasure, rather than a stressful highway competition, slow enough to exchange friendly waves with a neighbor in a passing car.
Dirt roads build community. Some urge that they be paved, an expensive option and, to the rural mind, a sell-out. This civil engineer believes there is an alternative. The worst potholes principally occur in low, poorly drained areas, where standing water turns underlying clay into a fluid incapable of bearing the load of passing vehicles.
In such areas one could remove perhaps a foot or more of clay and replace it with “crusher run” gravel – crushed rock from which only the largest fragments have been removed, leaving a mix of sizes so that the smaller pieces fill the potholes.
And it would retain the surface of a gravel road with all its advantages listed above. Our Trappe Road has several places where VDOT engineers could experiment. If successful, the new surface would be needed only for the worst spots, far cheaper than paving the entire road, and so a win/win alternative.
Meanwhile, it’s high time to bring on the VDOT graders. Happy spring.
Bruce Smart is a former Undersecretary of Commerce and a former CEO of Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Upperville.
A bill in the Michigan legislature. would make that state’s Freedom of Information Act applicable to both the governor and the state legislature.
We wish the Michiganders well. Getting state lawmakers and a governor to voluntarily expose themselves to the glare of the open records light is an uphill battle, no doubt. It’s one of those issues that lawmakers have trouble seeing the forest of good government through the trees of their own self-interest.
Virginia waded through that battle years ago and miraculously came out on the other side with both the executive and legislative branch subject to FOIA. This is a good thing, and we’re pleased that our home state sees the light.
But what we have now in Virginia is more like what Cher in “Clueless” calls “a full-on Monet:” “It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”
The so-called working papers exemption is largely (if not exclusively) to blame for making this big old mess.
The exemption applies to records “prepared by or for” a list of named people “for his personal or deliberative use.”
The idea, of course, is that we want our leaders to be able to collect information from all sources, separate out the wheat from the chaff, and then make the best decision. People will presumably feel freer to talk and offer up ideas if they know that their dumb idea won’t be splashed across the front page.
Some states have some version of this for the governor, though they may call it “deliberative process” or “executive privilege,” but many more states have no protection at all for the chief executive’s records.
Some of the states that do not exempt their governor nonetheless exempt their legislatures from public records acts (it’s good to write the laws!), but several legislatures are subject to the laws, and of those, probably half have a working-papers-type exemption.
There are usually one of two critical distinctions, however: the exemption is limited to matters related to the crafting of legislation (drafts, correspondence, reports), and/or the exemption no longer applies after a decision is made. The same post-decision limitation is present in many states with a similar exemption for chief executives.
Those are reasonable limitations. The first, again, is to encourage open discussion to come up with the best solution. The second balances the government’s need for confidentiality against the public’s right to know and determines that the public has an interest in seeing what went into a particular decision. The other records in the office? Well, those should be disclosed.
Virginia has no limitation, despite state Sen. Chap Peterson’s effort last year to impose one. Virginia’s working papers exemption has two additional problems: it has been extended to a long and growing list of individuals, and it also covers all of their correspondence.
Those who can take advantage of the working papers exemption include:
– The governor
– The attorney general
– Members of the General Assembly.
– The Division of Legislative Services, or the clerks of the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia
– Mayors or chief executive officers of any political subdivision of the commonwealth
– The presidents or other chief executive officer of any public institution of higher education in Virginia.
Underneath the members of the General Assembly, there are also legislative aides, and under the Office of the Governor there’s the chief of staff, counsel, director of policy, cabinet secretaries and the Assistant to the Governor for Intergovernmental Affairs and “individuals to whom the Governor has delegated his authority” pursuant to another statute.
If you’re keeping count, we’re talking several hundred people here. Several hundred people conducting the public’s business in near-total, sanctioned secrecy.
Petersen and Del. David Ramadan introduced bills this year to strike university presidents from this list.
Presumably this idea was prompted by the difficulty many had getting records from the office of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan after the Rolling Stone story raised questions about how allegations of rape are handled on campus.
Frank LoMonte from the Student Press Law Center says Virginia is unique in extending such a broad exemption to a university president. And there may be a policy argument for why they should or should not be able to use it. But the university presidents represent just 15 people.
The rest of the folks who can use the working papers exemption are likely going to fight hard to keep it. So what may ultimately prove to be a more productive conversation is how the existing exemption can be reined in.
When FOIA was revamped in 1999, the working papers exemption was targeted for a narrowing rewrite, in part to counter a practice that had developed during the Allen administration where ordinary records were stamped “Governor’s Working Papers” to keep them out of the public’s hands.
When that type of problem is being addressed, the implication is that there are records used or possessed by those named in the exemption that are subject to disclosure; records that could only be protected by way of a stamp. That is, the exemption does not apply to everything in that person’s office.
The late Del. Chip Woodrum was on that FOIA rewrite team, and even as a beneficiary of the exemption. Woodrum said years later that the exemption’s purpose was to allow withholding if release would interfere with government function, not to give officials an excuse to deny requests.
But that is what has happened.
It matters not whether there’s a critical public interest to protect by invoking the exemption. What matters now is that officials use it to deny any and all requests for records, effectively shielding everything they do and everyone they talk to.
Worried about heavy handed lobbyists, corporate donors or special interest groups trying to curry favor with an official?
Concerned that an official is pressuring employees to pursue questionable projects? You’ll be hard pressed to gain insight with the limitless working papers/correspondence exemption in the picture.
It is not our intention to implicate any one individual. We’re even willing to assume that every single individual who can use this exemption does so with only the purest motives and the most pristine record of public service.
But it is simply unacceptable in a representative democracy to leave the public in the dark about these individuals’ performance.
Journalists may be able to help shed some light, but otherwise we’re left with our government officials essentially telling us that we’re going to have to trust them because they aren’t going to show us their records.
Leviathan is alive and well in Virginia. It is well past time that this monster be tamed.
Rhyne is the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, based in Williamsburg
Within any group (racial, ethnic, religious) there will always be those who harbor unbridled prejudices against those different from them. This is true everywhere in the world.
Here in America, early on the Baptists were mistreated by the Puritans and took refuge in Rhode Island, the Catholics escaped Protestant opposition and established Maryland, the Irish and Italians fought each other in places like NYC both on the gang level and by political cronyism, and blacks and Jews had crosses burned on their lawns.
These sort of feuds and actions have diminished over the generations as each faction melded together as Americans first. The unfortunate situation our nation faces today is a loss of this common identity and its replacement with group victimology.
We have become a nation of whiners rather than sucking it up an letting insults roll off our backs. This does not excuse those who insult others for whatever cause. But within the historic context, nothing now going on is any different than before except that at present there is some measure of fear and distrust, sometimes partially justified, as polarization is Balkanizing our society.
In time, as Muslims become integrated into America and demonstrate their loyalty, they will experience less resistance.
On a personal level, our Muslim neighbors have a good relationship with us and we mutually look out for one another as is likewise true with our Indian neighbors.
It is the daily interactions we have with one another that are most critical. If our neighbors were jerks, no matter what their identity, we would not be pleased. Either people are descent or jerks.
In conclusion, do not mistake the actions or behavior of the few as representative of the whole of your community.
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