Virginia lawmakers consider creating FOI office, advisory council

Wednesday, February 9, 2000

(Editor’s note: The Virginia General Assembly approved a two-year trial of the FOI office and advisory council on Feb. 15. The state Senate approved the proposal, 39-0; the House of Delegates voted 92-7.)

A proposal to create a full-time office and advisory council to mediate disputes concerning Virginia’s open-government laws has won considerable support in the Virginia General Assembly as lawmakers make their way through the annual whirlwind, 60-day legislative session.

The office and 12-member council, if approved, would offer quick, 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 compliance with state laws governing meetings and records.

Last week, the House General Laws Subcommittee unanimously endorsed the proposal. The House General Laws Committee is scheduled to consider the bill today.

But open-government advocates worry about one potential roadblock: Gov. Jim Gilmore.

As the bill is currently drafted, the FOI office would fall under the auspices of the Division of Legislative Services. But Gilmore is urging bill sponsors state Del. Chip Woodrum, D-Roanoke, and state Sen. William Bolling, R-Hanover, to place the office under the executive branch.

“We have a problem with that,” Woodrum said. “The purpose of this bill is to make the office user-friendly and to provide a fast response. I’m disappointed that they didn’t bring their concerns or suggestions to us earlier.”

Woodrum said that most FOI concerns in Virginia involve the executive branch and local governments.

“We thought that if we put it in the legislative branch, it would be neutral,” he said. “If we put it in the executive branch, we would infuse it with more bureaucratic barnacles.”

Woodrum’s bill, House Bill 551, highlights a two-year, comprehensive effort of state lawmakers to revise the state’s FOI law.

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

In the meantime, a study committee of five legislators and two citizens representing government and the state news media have been putting the finishing touches on a two-year study of Virginia’s open-government rules.

The proposed advisory council would 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.

Woodrum said the Virginia Press Association, the Virginia Association of Broadcasters and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government would be asked to recommend appointees. Start-up costs are estimated to be about $150,000.

Frosty Landon, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said much of those costs would be offset by savings in legal bills and staff time used to handle current FOI conflicts.

Landon noted that both New York and Indiana have formed similar advisory councils with considerable success. Connecticut operates an FOI agency that drafts binding resolutions concerning government access. In Florida, the state attorney general handles most FOI cases.

“There’s been various approaches,” Landon said. “We’ve just tried to pick the best parts from all of them.”