FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA
June 8, 2005, Richmond
Electronic Meetings Subcommittee1 met on June 8, 2005 to discuss
the appropriateness of expanding authorization for the conduct
of electronic meetings to local regional authorities and other
local public bodies. House Bill 2760 (Delegate Reese) was
referred to the FOIA Council for study by the 2005 Session
of the General Assembly. As introduced, HB 2760 would allow
all local public bodies to conduct meetings under the Freedom
of Information Act (FOIA) through electronic communication
means (telephone or audio/visual). Under current law, only
state public bodies may conduct meetings in this manner.
member Roger Wiley, representing the local government perspective,
told the subcommittee that obtaining a quorum for local regional
authorities is a problem due to the several jurisdictions
served by a regional authority and the distance between the
jurisdictions and the meeting site. He indicated that some
regional authorities serve as many as 18 jurisdictions. Mr.
Wiley noted that reimbursement for travel and expenses is
a very real cost in addition to the inefficiencies of requiring
county and city executives to spend one-half day just in travel
to and from regional meetings. He pointed out that service
on a regional authority is a very ancillary duty when compared
with their principal responsibilities. He noted that the practical
effect of restricting the use of available technology is forcing
inefficiency on local government while at the same time complaining
that local government should operate more like a business.
Mr. Wiley also remarked that there is more public interest
in some issues dealt with by regional authorities (i.e. transportation)
than regional jail authorities. In addition, with traffic
congestion in the metropolitan areas of the state, it is increasingly
difficult to get good people to serve in the public sector.
Mr. Wiley reported that the Virginia Municipal League and
the Virginia Association of Counties had suggested the appointment
of lower echelon personnel to regional authority boards as
a way to eliminate the problem of obtaining a quorum on the
theory that they would not be as busy as a city manager, for
example. The experience however did not bear this out and
the problem persists. Mr. Wiley indicated that it is a source
of frustration when local officials appointed to the board
of a regional authority are away on business or for personal
reasons on the day of a board meeting. Allowing them to participate
electronically would alleviate scheduling conflicts and improve
attendance. As it stands now, such an official would have
to miss the meeting. The subcommittee was asked to consider
allowing a minority of a regional authority board to meet
by electronic means, but to require the quorum of the board
to be physically present at the meeting site.
Coalition for Open Government (VCOG) indicated that its board
of directors expressly opposed the expansion of the authorization
for the conduct of electronic meetings to local governing
bodies or local regional authorities. Because of the substantial
rewrite of the electronic meetings statute in 2005, time was
needed to gain experience and collect data under the new rules
for electronic meetings. It was noted that as new communication
technologies are developed, there is more opportunity for
abuse of open meeting principles.
Press Association (VPA) concurred with the remarks of VCOG
although it stated that it was aware of the imposition on
individual members of local public bodies. However, the membership
of the VPA has expressed opposition to any further loosening
of electronic meeting rules in light of the significant concessions
made in the law in 2005. It was noted that with electronic
meetings there is less interaction among the members of the
public body and visual cues such as body language are lacking.
Mr. Wiley protested that such notions further the premise
that local government officials are the "bad guys"
and state officials are not.
noted that expansion of the use of electronic meetings to
local regional authorities was premature in light of the changes
to the electronic meetings law in 2005. Electronic meetings
were first authorized in 1984 and no significant amendment
has been made until 2005. At that time, the rules for the
conduct of these meetings were substantially relaxed. Any
further expansion at this time was perceived as the camel's
nose under the tent. Additionally, allowing local regional
authorities to conduct electronic meetings would not solve
the problem of establishing a quorum as the current law requires
a quorum of a state public body to be physically assembled
at the main meeting location.
of Stafford County suggested that perhaps a pilot project
involving a regional authority may be in order. The idea was
to allow a designated regional authority to meet electronically
and report its experiences with electronic meetings. In lieu
of creating a pilot project, it was suggested that regional
authorities consider rotating the meeting locations among
the member jurisdictions. It was noted the most regional authorities
meet between four and six times per year and that rotation
of the meeting sites would spread the burden of travel among
the participating jurisdictions.
unrelated issue was raised concerning clarification of which
public bodies may conduct electronic meetings. Currently §
2.2-3708 provides that "[I]t shall be a violation of
this chapter for any political subdivision or any governing
body, authority, board, bureau, commission, district or agency
of local government or any committee thereof to conduct a
meeting wherein the public business is discussed or transacted
through telephonic, video, electronic or other communication
means where the members are not physically assembled."
(Emphasis added). It was noted that the general understanding
of § 2.2-3708 is that state public bodies may conduct
electronic meetings while units of local government may not.
However, state authorities are political subdivisions as stated
in their enabling legislation. The question is whether they
are precluded from conducting electronic meetings.
lacking a quorum, concluded its meeting by recognizing the
need for scheduling an additional meeting for further discussions
among all subcommittee members and interested parties. No
date has been set for the next subcommittee meeting.
Subcommittee members Edwards and Wiley were present; Mssrs.
Fifer and Miller were absent.