Lawmakers review and pass bills good for transparency, bypass those that weren't
The short version is that most of the bills to surface during the 2010 legislative session that VCOG would consider “bad” were defeated in some fashion, and most of the “good” bills made it through both chambers.
Many of the bills VCOG fought against were either amended to offset some particular objection or they were sent to another agency for further study, or perhaps (though not likely) to be continued to next year’s session. Some were killed outright, either in subcommittee or full committee.
Thanks to the hard work of many lawmakers, lots of pro-access bills got through. And it wasn’t for lack of trying that some access-friendly bills failed to see the light of day.
House Bill 449 was tops on VCOG’s list of most worrisome bills. Proposed by Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), it would have allowed the government to get an injunction against a citizen it felt was “harassing” the government with FOIA.
Thanks in part to stirring testimony by two citizens (Robert Holloway from Yorktown and Jim Conrad from Norfolk), the House General Laws FOIA Subcommittee, chaired by Virginia Beach Republican Sal Iaquinto, sent the bill to the FOIA Council for further study of what can — or should — be done about FOIA requesters who use FOIA to purposely pile onto a public body’s workload.
The Senate General Laws FOI Subcommittee sent three more bills for study in the FOIA Council (see chart at right).
One measure proposes opening up Virginia’s FOIA to all U.S. citizens as some 44 other states in the country do. Virginia’s law is currently limited to use by Virginia citizens and newspapers/broadcasters operating in the state.
VCOG originally supported the measure, brought by Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Martinsville), but in the House FOIA Subcommittee, the bill was weighted down with problematic amendments: one would require out-of-state FOIA requesters to pay more, or pay up-front, for requests (a scenario that may pose problems under the Privileges & Immunities Clause of the U.S. Constitution); and another would bar users from other states with restricted FOI laws (Arkansas, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee) from using Virginia’s FOIA, which would lead to the bizarre situation where a citizen of California could access the records of Bristol, Va., government, but a resident of Bristol, Tenn., could not.
With so many new policy issues being introduced in the amended bill, VCOG endorsed the Senate FOI Subcommittee’s recommendation to send the measure to a FOIA Council study committee.
Another measure that was good in theory but was lacking in execution was one to open up criminal investigation files upon completion of an investigation. Virginia currently allows criminal investigation files to be kept confidential indefinitely, regardless of the investigation’s status. The bill’s wording, however, would not have changed the current law by much, so the FOIA Council will study the concept of the bill this summer.
A third measure headed to the FOIA Council seeks to clarify what kind of advance notice — if any — the defendant in a FOIA case gets when a FOIA lawsuit is filed.
Then there were the problem bills that were thankfully defeated. These bills would have…
Closed off all records of any Nanotechnology Authority corporate offshoot (the whole idea of an authority was shot down);
Closed off access to the Prince William County school system’s visitor identification system;
Switched publication of public notices from newspapers to two of six other media (one of which could be a newspaper);
Closed off access to all concealed handgun permit applications at the courthouse;
Prevented release of names of people bringing animals into animal shelters; and
Allowed the State Board of Elections to run only a summary of a proposed constitutional amendment in the newspaper instead of the full text.
See the chart on page 4 for a recap of these and other bills that were neither enacted into law, nor referred for study.