Virginia governor approves FOI office, advisory council

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore signed a bill this weekend creating a state office and a 12-member advisory council to offer guidance and to mediate disputes concerning Virginia’s open-government laws.

Gilmore’s signature brought a sigh of relief from open-government advocates who had worried that the governor might amend or veto the measure in order to get the office and council placed under the executive branch.

The office and 12-member council are designed to offer fast, non-binding interpretations of the state’s 32-year-old Freedom of Information law. The office would also coordinate training sessions for government employees, publish educational materials and encourage statewide compliance with state laws governing meetings and records.

Bill sponsor Chip Woodrum, D-Roanoke, said the creation of the office and council would give many citizens and groups a better venue than going to court. Likewise, government officials would not have to wait weeks, sometimes months, for an attorney general opinion.

“It might only take a phone call,” Woodrum said. “But the court or attorney general options remain open.”

Woodrum said the availability of an FOI office might remove some of the mystique of dealing with government and might “remind government officials that they are public servants.”

“And I underline servant,” he said.

The FOI office falls under the auspices of the Division of Legislative Services. But as the bill circulated through the General Assembly, Gilmore urged bill sponsors Woodrum and Sen. William Bolling, R-Hanover, to place the office under the executive branch.

Gilmore waited until this weekend to sign the bill. He had until midnight April 9.

The governor’s press office couldn’t explain why the governor opted to sign the bill after he had insisted during the recent legislative session that the office and council fall under the executive branch.

Woodrum credits Bolling with persuading Gilmore, a fellow Republican, to sign the bill as drafted by the General Assembly.

Frosty Landon, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, says Gilmore may also have been influenced by a sunset clause in the bill. The clause requires the General Assembly to evaluate and, if necessary, reapprove the FOI office and council during the 2001 session.

“I think when [Gilmore] realized that in about 18 months, this whole thing has to be reargued, it was probably easier for [him] to sign it,” he said with a laugh.

The creation of the FOI office and council highlights a two-year, comprehensive effort of state lawmakers to revise the state’s FOI law.

Last year, the Assembly overwhelming approved legislation to clarify procedures to be used by government bodies in responding to information requests. The legislation required public officials to read and familiarize themselves with the FOIA and eliminated numerous exemptions to requests for records.

The advisory council will include at least one news media representative, two legislators, representatives of local and state agencies, the state librarian, the state attorney general and the director of the Division of Legislative Services.

Landon says the latest improvements to the state’s Freedom of Information Act helps make government as transparent as it can possibly be and enables citizens to steer through the complicated maze that is government.

In a related development, Gilmore has also approved the state’s general budget, which includes about $330,000 for the creation of the FOI office and council. That, bill sponsors say, should cover operating costs for the office with a two-person staff.

Landon says much of those costs will be offset by savings in legal bills and staff time used to handle current FOI conflicts.

“With about 60,000 employees in state government, I don’t think it’s too much that we should have two more to help them with openness and make democracy better,” he said.

Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for the First Amendment Center.