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Will Closing Records Make Buildings Safer?

New law puts them out of reach of public scrutiny.

When David Boone wanted the Virginia General Assembly to pass a bill last year, he knew what to do: He contacted lobbyist Mark Ingrao. Ingrao, vice president of Virginia government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, researched the bill, wrote the legislation himself, found a delegate to carry it, secured the governor's support and watched as his brainchild sailed through both houses of the General Assembly with unanimous votes.

The result is either a piece of legislation that will protect vital information from possible terrorists, or one more step in accelerating the trend of limiting the public's right to know.

House Bill 1727, sponsored by Del. Beverly Sherwood (R-29th) exempts building records of apartment and commercial buildings from the provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That means that, as of July 1, citizens are no longer able to look up a building's security system, ventilation system, elevators, fire protection system, telecommunication facilities or other utility systems.

This makes a building's tenants safer, said Boone, a vice president at the commercial real-estate-management company Boston Properties, which manages 23 properties in Springfield, Reston, Herndon and Dulles as well as others in the District and Maryland.

"We're not trying to hide anything," he said. "We're really trying to protect our tenants and our buildings."

"We feel that now we have some protection against just anybody walking into a building-code official's office and asking for the plans of a building," said Ingrao.

TO LUCY DALGLISH, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the law is part of a "disturbing trend," one that has "caught on like wildfire.

"It's happening everywhere," she said. "The feds are putting an enormous amount of pressure on the states to pass laws like this. They have decided that there's no longer a need for public oversight of public works projects."

A worker who got sick in a building repeatedly and who wanted to see whether a building's ventilation system might be at fault is no longer able to look at the plans, she said. Likewise, if a catastrophe like the recent deadly deck collapse in Chicago occurs at a building, it will be impossible for people to find out whether other buildings nearby are safe.

"It's the type of record that on a daily basis not a lot of people will want to look at," said Dalglish. "In an emergency or for some oversight reason, it's useful to look at these records."

Boone said that management companies would still have the records on hand.

"We can share our records with anyone whom we please, but we do have a certain amount of control over it," he said.

Del. David Albo (R-42nd) — a member of the House Committee on General Laws, which unanimously endorsed the bill in January — did not immediately recall its specifics.

"We had very little debate on it," he said. "It was part of Homeland Security. They didn't want terrorists to be able to FOIA building plans to figure out how to blow them up."