Republican leaders in the House of Delegates are moving to end years of secrecy surrounding the public records of previous Virginia governors.
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, filed House Bill 1702 for the 2019 session that would require the records of an outgoing governor to be made public by the Library of Virginia within one year of their delivery to the library.
Currently, records of recent governors are on lockdown at the library and not available to the public, although nothing in state law prohibits their release.
The library releases records after they have been cataloged. Some, but not all, records of the administration of Sen. Tim Kaine’s term as governor from January 2006 to January 2010 are public. Records from the administrations of Bob McDonnell, governor from 2010 to 2014; and Terry McAuliffe, governor from 2014 to 2018, are not.
“In the era of the internet and with technology being as advanced as it is today, Virginians are still being forced to wait 10 years to have access to official correspondence from past governors’ administrations,” Gilbert said in a news release. “When the Library of Virginia receives the correspondence, it should be put online and available without delay.”
The news release from House Republicans, who currently control the chamber, said the budget approved this year includes $600,000 for the Library of Virginia to upgrade technology.
Should Gilbert’s bill become law, it would require all correspondence from the Kaine, McDonnell and McAuliffe administrations to be made available online immediately, Republicans said.
McAuliffe, a Democrat, is considering a run for president in 2020. But the records of his administration are not available to the public.
When asked about McAuliffe’s political ambition, Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for House Republicans, said in a text message “for us this is just about good governance.”
He said Apple has released 16 versions of the iPhone since Kaine was governor “yet we are still waiting to read emails from his BlackBerry.”
The Kaine E-mail Project @ LVA, a project to catalogue Kaine’s gubernatorial records, debuted in 2012. It is ongoing, and since then, millions more gubernatorial records have been transferred to the library to await cataloguing.
Sandra Treadway, Librarian of Virginia, said she and library staff share Gilbert’s sentiment. But lack of money is a problem.
“We are committed to transparency in government and we understand and we wish we could do this,” she said.
Prior to 2008, the library had more than 200 employees. Because of budget cuts that’s now 125. The number of employees managing state records has been reduced from eight to four, she said.
So for the McDonnell administration, for example, the library has more than 7 million electronic files in various formats that need to be reviewed for records protected by attorney-client privilege and converted to an accessible format, she said.
“To do what they’re asking within one year would be a heavy lift.”
The library is working with professors at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, to experiment with using artificial intelligence to more quickly catalog records, Treadway said.
Megan Rhyne is the executive director of the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government, which promotes expanded access to government records and meetings at the state and local levels.
“The Library of Virginia is a treasure, in no small part because of its collection of gubernatorial papers dating back to Patrick Henry,” Rhyne said by email.
“VCOG has worked with the library for many years on records management, so we know first-hand both how dedicated the library staff is to maintaining and providing records to the public, and how hard budget cuts have hit them over the years. We certainly support the concept of Del. Gilbert’s bill and hope that logistics and funding will be available to put the concept into action.”