Sunrise over V.A. Capitol.

September 12, 2001, Richmond

The Freedom of Information Advisory Council held its sixth meeting since its creation in July 2000 and focused on progress reports from the workgroups established at the previous meeting on June 20, 2001.

Connell v. Kersey

Roger Wiley, a member of the FOIA Council, reported on the progress of the workgroup established to discuss a statutory response to the Connell v. Kersey case. He reported that the group had met once and that a proposal had been circulated that added a definition of "public official" to FOIA. That term is used in the policy statement of FOIA but not in the substantive sections of the act. The group expressed some concern about this proposal and will consider other alternatives at future meetings of the workgroup.

A representative the Virginia Press Association suggested that the workgroup should adopt a simple, direct fix to address the issues raised by the Connell v. Kersey case. He suggested that the term "public official" be removed entirely from FOIA to alleviate any ambiguity and that the definition of a public body be redefined to include constitutional officers. He praised the use of the workgroup format to help facilitate discussion about these issues.

Working Papers

FOIA Council member John Edwards reported on the progress of the working papers workgroup, created to examine the issues presented in HB 2700 (2001). He reported that the workgroup met once and concluded that the issues raised by the bill were the result of an internal, local political problem and not the result of a problem with the exemption. Therefore, the group decided not to pursue the issue and will not meet again.

Scientific Research

Staff reported on the progress of the workgroup formed to examine scientific research as a result of HB 1597 (2001). Instead of convening a group for discussion of the issues, the executive director of the FOIA Council contacted representatives from state universities and the Department of General Services to discuss the implications of the bill. Everyone contacted opposed the bill, because most research that would be covered by the bill is confidential by contract or is proprietary information. The vice-provost for research at Virginia Tech will write a letter to the FOIA Council summarizing this viewpoint on behalf of all Virginia institutions of higher education. The council directed that Delegate Landes, patron of the bill, be notified of the progress of the survey. The issue will be continued at the next council meeting.

Other Issues

After the workgroup presentations concluded, Senator Houck, vice-chairman of the FOIA Council, commented about a recent FOIA case in Fredericksburg involving a closed meeting of the city council to discuss the proposed slavery museum. The case hinged upon the meaning of the term "announcement" in the exemption. Senator Houck indicated that he is considering proposing legislation that would clarify the meaning of this term.

The council discussed the sunset provision contained in its enabling legislation that provides that it will cease to exist on July 1, 2002. It was the consensus of the members to recommend legislation for the 2002 session to remove the sunset provision, thereby making the council permanent.

Staff presented a recap of the FOIA workshops, held at various locations around the state in July, and other activities. The workshops were well attended, and consisted of three segments: FOIA 101, an electronic records overview, and a law-enforcement records discussion. Issues frequently encountered during the workshops included questions about who is the custodian of public records, when does the five-day statutory time limit for a response begin to run, and fees for FOIA requests. Delegate Woodrum suggested that the problems encountered with fees be monitored.

Staff reported that to date, it had received and answered 634 inquiries and issued 64 written opinions. Of the 634 inquiries, 148 came from media, 282 from citizens and 204 from government. In addition, the council's website has been expanded to include a searchable database of its written opinions. Since the creation of the website in July 2000, it has received close to 20,000 hits.

The council set its next meeting for Thursday, November 29, 2001, at 10:00 a.m. in House Room D of the General Assembly Building in Richmond.

The Honorable Clifton A. "Chip" Woodrum, Chairman
Staff contact: Maria J.K. Everett