There were some good ideas that may have been ahead of their time. Then there were so-so bills that close off certain information, but which nonetheless follow FOIA’s policy of being narrowly drawn to address a specific need.
Some of the pro-access bills that were killed had something in common: they called for the proactive creation of Internet-based services for use by the public. Whether there were substantive objections, political opposition or just a resistance to the steady march of technology, these measures at least demonstrate the promise of a better future of citizen access to government information.
One proposal would have required localities to set up citizen-complaint Web sites. Another would have required the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia to post the salaries of college administrators. A third would have created a Law Library Database linking all public law school libraries. And another would have created a General Assembly Conflicts of Interest Act “disclosure database.”
Freshman lawmaker James LeMunyon (R-Oak Hill) introduced a simple measure that would have authorized the legislature’s Web site to organize data so an individual lawmaker’s voting history could be searched. It sounded simple, and the measure, which was co-patroned by Del. Mark Keam (D-Vienna) and backed by all other members of the House freshman class, with only 13 votes against it: Republicans Watkins Abbitt (Appomattox), Kathy Byron (Lynchburg), Anne Crockett-Stark (Wytheville), Tom Gear (Hampton), Harvey Morgan (Gloucester), Brenda Pogge (Yorktown), Lee Ware (Powhatan) and Tommy Wright (Victoria), and Democrats Kenneth Alexander (Norfolk), Johnny Joannou (Portsmouth), James Shuler (Blacksburg) and Lionel Spruill (Chesapeake).
LeMunyon got a chilly reception in Sen. John Edwards’ (D-Roanoke) Rules subcommittee. Though the bill was recommended to report out of committee by Sen. Phillip Puckett (D-Tazewell), Edwards refused to second the motion. Clerk of the Senate Susan Schaar insisted that the proposal (a) would be more work for the Senate, and (b) wouldn’t fit in with the way the Senate does business.
In the full committee, LeMunyon came armed with statements from the Web site administrators that it would take no more than 40 hours over an entire year to adjust the system to display data that already exists there. The Rules Committee was unmoved, and it voted to “continue” the bill until 2011, with Edd Houck (D-Spotsylvania) and Fred Quayle (R-Suffolk) voting no.
Afterwards, Edwards said in an interview to the online publication Roanoke Free Press that the measure sounded like an attempt by the House to tell the Senate how to run its business. He also wondered why anyone would “want to look at the whole list of bills.”
(Note: After the vote, a programmer at Richmond Sunlight, which gets much of its data from the legislature’s Web site, was able to create a simple model for displaying voting-history in a matter of 20 minutes. If the legislature doesn’t want to take control of the way its own data is displayed someone else, like Richmond Sunlight or the Virginia Public Access Project, for example, will.)
Among the bills that passed that will amend FOIA, but which VCOG did not oppose (either in their original form, or as amended by the Virginia Press Association) were those that will:
Add “applicants for admission” to the definition of “scholastic records,” which are generally off-limits under FOIA;
Grant the privilege of the working papers exemption to the clerks of the House and Senate;
Grant protection from FOIA for Line of Duty Act investigatory records;
Close off access to certain records of the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission; and
Exempt from FOIA details of the state and local emergency radio configurations.
See the chart on page 7 for these and other bills that will amend FOIA.