Member Spotlight: Dave Ress of the Daily Press discusses his new book on FOIA

This week we are featuring open-records expert and reporter for the Daily Press Dave Ress and his new book, "Municipal Accountability in the Age of Reform: The Gadfly at the Counter." Ress discusses how the book came about, the writing process and the role of the modern gadfly. Questions by William Lineberry 


Can you tell me, overall, what your book is about and what subjects it explores?

I wanted to look at what happens when individuals ask their government for an accounting – that is, for the process that starts with the question “Hey, what’s going on?” and ends with either an affirmation of what officials are doing or a change in direction. So, I wrote about  series of clashes over the Right to Know – the right to see public records and participate in public meetings – and the right of review of municipal officials’ decisions – referendum and initiative --to see how an informal and longstanding American tradition of accountability fared as government became more complicated, more professional and more involved in the daily lives of people beginning in the decades after the Civil War.

What did you find when you examined the historic clashes over the Right to Know and municipal review? Did these battles help lead to FOIA and review as we know it today?

The Right to Know is embedded deeply in the American notion of the way government ought to work, which is why when citizens began asking the courts to help them get access to records, judges granted these requests. Often, in fact, they did so with stirring commentary on democracy and how our American idea of democratic governance differed from our English inheritance.

They probably  did this because the English roots of American law did not provide for a general Right to Know. Judges in the 1870s and 1880s, that is, recognized the Right to Know as a reflection of our political culture, not our legal culture. But the legal culture doesn’t always track political will, and the 1910s and 1920s saw courts and officials restrain access to records and meetings. Only after this trend reached the ridiculous excesses of the 1950s did the persistent efforts of the late Rep. John E. Moss, D-Calif., finally lead Congress to pass the first federal FOIA.

In your research, when did the idea that public officials should be held accountable through records really begin to take hold in the U.S.? Was this an American phenomenon?   

I think the idea has been around for a long time but it emerges as a formal dispute with a paper trail for the first time in 1868, when a member of a good government group in New York City who suspected the Streets Commissioner was corrupt asked to see the commissioner’s records, was rebuffed, and went to court. In England, cases seeking records from government-like bodies (the parish councils and manor courts that handled many of what we now see as municipal government functions) date back to 1798. In their broadest rulings, English courts say individuals might have a right to see records only if they had direct, tangible interests at stake while many judges simply said there was no right to know. What was distinctive about early American rulings after the Civil War was the view that any citizen had a right to know. My theory is that the American idea that everybody had a right to know was fostered by the informal and small scale of pre Civil War municipal government, and that this was tested in court as city governments grew in size and complexity.

What’s it like to write as a reporter in your day job and then write a book with so much academic and historic weight in what I’m assuming is your free time?

Actually, there’s a lot that’s the same when reporting news and researching and writing history. It’s digging out the facts and the context for facts that lets you find the right voice for telling a story, I think. Hope so, anyway, since that’s what I tried to do here. I did write in my free time, over the space of about a year and a half; some of the research, though, goes back a bit farther. I started on that when Daily Press publisher and editor Marisa Porto asked if I could help give Virginia’s FOI Advisory Council some ideas about where our law might be falling short of its intention, which led me wonder about how the whole idea of FOIA got started. The rest, ahem, is history.

What was one thing you learned while writing your book that you hadn’t anticipated discovering?

What I didn’t expect to see was just how deeply the idea of government in the sunshine is rooted in a distinctively American conception of the way democracy works. I should have – I was a reporter in Montreal before Quebec’s Loi sur l’acces aux documents des organismes publics and the Canadian Access to Information FOIA laws were enacted (in 1982 and 1983, respectively) and I worked in Britain and later in Africa where the idea of an individual’s right to know is pretty limited. I report a lot on how the exercise of power can affect the daily lives of vulnerable people, often to their detriment. To write about individuals who were sometimes able to insist on accountability was a hopeful reminder that if any one of us preserve, we have a chance to help make a better world. I liked being able to say that.

What’s the role of the modern gadfly?

Same as it ever was: participate, engage. Don’t be afraid to ask officials your question, to ask to see the record, to insist that their deliberations be done in public. Remember, we’re the ones who determine our communities’ direction, whether that’s a town, a county, a city, our Virginia or our United States. There’s help available – lots of journalists volunteer through the VPA (check the inside front cover of the association’s FOIA guide booklet) and both the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (https://www.opengovva.org/ and the state Freedom of Information Advisory Council (http://foiacouncil.dls.virginia.gov/) are run by people who really know what they’re talking about when it comes to the right to know.

Tell me in 50 words or less why someone should read the book.

Maybe for what I found in writing it: that to be a gadfly is hard-wired in being an American; and that Americans have always believed, even before FOIA statutes, that accountability is what makes democracy work.