A Pretty Good Session for Open Government Advocates

By Alex Wiggins
Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – When they gathered this week, members of the Virginia Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists joked that they should check the underside of their vehicles for wiretaps.

They convened to discuss how the Freedom of Information Act and related issues fared during the General Assembly’s recently concluded regular session. This was an opportune time to take stock: Last week was Sunshine Week – an effort to educate the public about open government.

FOIA gives citizens the right to obtain information from the government. Every legislative session, the General Assembly considers amending the law – often in ways that concern advocates of open government.

For journalists and citizens who support access to information, 2012 was a fairly good session, Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told the SPJ group Monday.

For instance, most bills that would have significantly chipped away at citizens’ right to know failed. They included House Bill 25, which would have made concealed handgun permits confidential. That measure, proposed by Delegate Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, passed the House but died in a Senate committee.

A big concern this session involved public notices, such as legal ads, agendas for government meetings and other official information. Currently, local governments must publish such notices in a local newspaper. Several legislators want to remove that requirement and allow localities simply to publish the notices on their websites.

For example, Republican Delegate Steve Landes of Verona sponsored HB 773. Under that proposal, local governments could use their websites, voice or text alert systems, public access television channels or a bulletin board at the public library as alternatives to publishing public notices in a newspaper. (A locality would have to use two of the five methods to satisfy the notification requirement.)

“He brings the same bill every year,” Rhyne said, referring to Landes.

HB 773 was one of a handful of bills to let local governments circumvent the newspaper publication law.

Rhyne noted that the Virginia Press Association, which represents the state’s newspapers, has been concerned about “whether or not public notices and legal notices should stay in the newspapers, or whether they should move online onto government websites.”

The VPA says more people will see public notices in their newspapers and the papers’ websites than on a local government’s site. Moreover, the association says, it’s critical that notices be published by an independent party – not by the government.

Rhyne said support for keeping public notices in newspapers came from legislators from Southwest Virginia and from Delegate Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna. Those lawmakers are from rural districts where most residents don’t have high-speed Internet access, she said.

“What saved it from becoming a ‘Democrat and Republican’ issue was the notion of ‘the rural versus the urban,’” Rhyne said.

The VPA worked with the State Board of Elections to make sure that public notices about changes to election districts would be published both online and in the printed press.

Rhyne said VCOG differs “slightly” from the VPA on the issue of moving public notices online.

That day may come eventually. But Rhyne said, “You can’t just go from having notices in the newspaper where the public has relied on them for decades, and then just say, ‘Now they’re going to be somewhere else.’”

Overall, Rhyne said, 2012 was “a pretty quiet year” for FOIA legislation – especially compared with the two previous sessions. In 2010 and 2011, she noted, the General Assembly considered (and rejected) bills allowing the government to “sue a citizen for harassing them through FOIA.”

During this past session, Rhyne said, “What we ended up with were four bills that would amend FOIA”:

• HB 275, by Delegate Chris Peace, R-Mechanicsville, would exempt certain information at the Virginia Board of Accountancy from public disclosure if it’s being used for investigative purposes. Before the session, Peace met with VCOG, and the group’s “concerns were worked out there,” Rhyne said.

• Senate Bill 193, by Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, would exempt cell phone numbers for EMS personnel and firefighters from FOIA.

• HB 141, by Cole, “exempts personal information in constituent correspondence.” At first blush, that “seems rather shocking,” Rhyne said. But she said the bill “really doesn’t do anything now.” Under the measure, the exemption would not apply if “the correspondence relates to the transaction of public business.”

• HB 480, sponsored by Delegate Dave Albo, R-Springfield, allows government officials who are holding a closed meeting to invite other officials to attend. “We didn’t oppose it because anybody that holds a closed meeting can invite whoever they want,” Rhyne said.

Over the summer, public officials and open government advocates will study a few FOIA-related bills that failed during the legislative session.

One is HB 397 by Delegate Patrick Hope, D-Arlington. This bill would have opened to the public “guidance documents” that help the Virginia Parole Board decide whether to grant, deny or revoke an inmate’s parole. The bill included a “delayed effective date to give the Freedom of Information Advisory Council an opportunity to review the legislation and report on its implementation.” The proposal died in a House subcommittee.

Paul Fletcher, president of the SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter, commended VCOG for monitoring and influencing FOIA-related legislation.

“I would just like to salute the press association and VCOG for the great work that you did,” Fletcher said. “We were very proud and happy to work with both groups in helping to defeat these measures, because these public notice bills are important for SPJ in that they’re public right to know.”

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