Happy Crossover Day, fellow Virginians! For any non-lawmaking junkies reading this post, “crossover”, which happens at the end of the day today, is the point after which each house of the General Assembly begins to consider only bills that have passed the other house. It’s a key point in the General Assembly session calendar – it’s a deadline, because bills that haven’t passed the house in which they started can’t be considered further; and it’s a new beginning, because the work that helped bills pass one house now needs to be repeated in the other, from subcommittees to floor votes.
This post offers a couple of overall thoughts, and a few bill status updates, on this happy mid-Session occasion.
Monday afternoon, the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology met to plow through a number of bills, including several relevant to open government. This post discusses the danger to public safety that FOIA poses and other things the audience could have learned from this instance of legislative sausage-making.
This post (the third in a series on 2015 bills) discusses two bills to sharpen the teeth behind FOIA by adding new potential consequences for violations (HB1646 and HB2223), a bill that would require centralized email archiving (SB674), and two bills that would permit secret subpoenas for Internet information, with no checks at all on prosecutors (HB1946 and SB919).
Continuing a series of posts (begun Monday) about bills in the 2015 General Assembly session, and resolutely ignoring the State of the Union nonsense, this post discusses (i) HB1573, concerning the Attorney General’s duties in representing the Commonwealth; (ii) HB1405 & HB1438, this year’s edition of the annual cage match between localities and newspapers on public notices; and (iii) HB1277 & SB955, which would permit and regulate hemp production.
There are a number of resources available to help find bills that may be of interest to those who believe in open government. The Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s annual legislative bill chart is a great place to start. Or you can try searching LIS or Richmond Sunlight databases for key words (on LIS, try 2.2-37*, which will identify all bills that make any changes in FOIA’s chapter). Rather than duplicate their efforts on bill identification, we’re going to leap right to quick commentary, as this year’s “short” General Assembly session powers along.
This post focuses on 5 bills (SB1133, HB1477, HB1635, HB1308, & HB1673) that are slated for consideration in Monday’s meetings of the Senate General Laws and Technology committee and the Civil and Criminal subcommittees of the House Courts of Justice committee.
UPDATE AT END OF POST.
Last week, the FOIA Council posted a new model FOIA Rights & Responsibilities template. (H/T VCOG.) That template is a document designed to assist executive branch agencies in satisfying Va. Code § 2.2-3704.1’s requirement that they post certain FOIA-related information on their public websites.
One of the changes to FOIA in 2014 was an addition to the information executive branch agencies must post. HB 837, proposed by Delegates Mark L. Keam and David I. Ramadan, required agencies to add the following statement to their websites:
“A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall impose any extraneous, intermediary, or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication. All charges for the supplying of requested records shall be estimated in advance at the request of the citizen as set forth in subsection F of § 2.2-3704 of the Code of Virginia.”
As anyone familiar with Virginia’s FOIA will know, that’s essentially the content of Va. Code § 2.2-3704(F).
Now, no one wants to be a voice of negativity, and any effort by the General Assembly to support FOIA and to inform the public about FOIA seems praise-worthy. But HB 837 deserves little praise because the bill failed to contain two obvious improvements, to itself and to the Code section it amended.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, April 22nd, the FOIA Council holds its first meeting of the year (in House Room D of the General Assembly Building, 201 N 9th St, Richmond).
The main item on the agenda is the beginning of the much touted study of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, as required by 2014 House Joint resolution 96:
That the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council be directed to study all exemptions contained in FOIA to determine the continued applicability or appropriateness of such exemptions and whether the Virginia Freedom of Information Act should be amended to eliminate any exemption from FOIA that the FOIA Council determines is no longer applicable or appropriate. In conducting its study, the FOIA Council shall also examine the organizational structure of FOIA and make recommendations to improve the readability and clarity of FOIA. The FOIA Council shall consider comment from citizens of the Commonwealth; representatives of state and local governmental entities; broadcast, print, and electronic media sources; open government organizations; and other interested parties. [emphases added]
The study is to take 2 years, with meetings completed by November 30, 2016, and a report to be submitted by the first day of the 2017 legislative session.
The study is a huge task. The press thus far has usually cited a figure of 172 exemptions. That figure apparently is the sum of the 127 exemptions to FOIA’s open records provisions in Va. Code §§ 2.2-3705.1 – 2.2-3705.8 and the 45 purposes for which Va. Code § 2.2-3711 allows closed meetings.
The FOIA Advisory Council met yesterday for its final meeting of the year. We suggest that the soundtrack for this meeting should begin and end with the Imperial March.
The main agenda item was the latest draft of Delegate Scott Surovell’s long-running effort to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to bring the SCC under FOIA, superseding the badly flawed 2011 decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia in Christian v. SCC. An hour and a half after discussion began, it was clear that the SCC had won the battle but also that the war will rage on in the upcoming General Assembly session.
Yesterday afternoon a workgroup of the FOIA Council met to discuss the State Corporation Commission and the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA Council Executive Director Maria Everett noted that the workgroup was seeking agreement. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen.