FOI Advisory Council updates
The council released its sixth annual report, available online at http://dls.state.va.us/groups/foiacouncil/2005ar.pdf .
The report details council activity for the year -- from training session, workshops and requests for opinions, to subcommittee reports, monitoring efforts and new publications.
One new publication is "Taking the Shock out of FOIA Charges," a first-time effort to walk government agencies through the process of calculating charges for the production of records under FOIA.
The new guide lays out the relevant FOIA provisions, cites council opinions interpreting the provision, and gives some common-sense advice for government bodies. For instance, the council recommends waiving the first $50 of charges, or giving the first 50 pages for free. Or, put routinely requested records on Web sites and have extra copies on hand at the office.
The guide can be found online at http://dls.state.va.us/groups/foiacouncil/ref/FOIACharges.pdf .
Council staff reported at the Nov. 17 meeting that attendance at the annual FOIA workshops was down this year to approximately 350 people attended five events. By comparison, 418 attended in 2003, and just under 650 attended in 2004.
Executive Director Maria Everett floated the idea of holding training sessions in odd-numbered years and topic-specific workshops in even-numbered years.
The council formed a subcommittee in the spring to deal with legislation introduced by Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Reston, and held over for study by the council. House Bill 2672 would have amended FOIA’s meeting exemptions to allow closed meetings for discussion of certain documents under the Public-Private Education Facilities Act. Through at least a dozen meetings and workgroups (plus bull sessions held on the side by stakeholders), the subcommittee reached a compromise on an amended version of HB2672. The council adopted the recommendation at its Dec. 29 meeting. (See cover story for complete discussion of the compromise.)
The subcommittee formed to explore the expansion of new electronic meeting rules to local and/or regional bodies did not make a formal recommendation to the council. Consequently, the council did not take any action on the issue, which arose from HB2670, introduced by then-Del. Gary Reese, R-Oak Hill, and referred to the council by the General Assembly.
Proponents of expansion cite the trouble some local and regional governing body members face in trying to commute to and from meetings of their respective bodies. Some say that rigid in-person requirements for public body meetings may dissuade qualified people from accepting election, nomination or appointment to a body.
While understanding that traffic in Virginia only gets worse, opponents of the measure still stress the value of face-to-face meetings because the audience can observe the interaction among members, and because a central meeting place gives interested stakeholders an opportunity to meet and discuss issues.
Additional opposition stems from the fact that the new electronic meeting rules have not even been in effect for a year now. Passed in 2005, the rules went into effect July 1.
Another longstanding issue with the council was the follow-up (aftermath?) of the several lawsuits between the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Nelson County citizen Lee Albright, reported previously in NEWS.
The council had staff prepare a report listing possible fixes or additions to FOIA that would prevent another such meltdown. The suggestions included increasing the council’s powers to include some kind of mediation services, or making the council’s opinions binding. Other suggestions included changing the standard by which a person who wins a FOIA suit can recover his or her attorneys’ fees; increasing the amount of monetary penalties for FOIA violations; and making non-compliance with FOIA a possible ground for termination.
Concluding at its Nov. 17 meeting that what happened at DGIF was an anomaly (and one not expected to crop up again in the capable hands of the interim director, Col. Gerald Massengill), the council decided not to tinker with FOIA, at least not on any of these points.
The council considered one more piece of proposed legislation, though: to write in a possible response a records custodian might give when asked for records that do not exist or that the custodian does not have.
Over the years, the council (and the Coalition) has heard from many citizens and reporters whose requests went unanswered. The government’s defense was often along the lines of, "Well, the records didn’t exist, so we assumed we didn’t have to do anything."
It’s true; there is not requirement that a records custodian tell a requester that the requested records do not exist. But, how hard would it be to tell the requester that?
With that in mind, the council bandied about two main options -- one prepared by council staff, the other prepared by council member and Coalition board member Craig Fifer.
At its Dec. 29 meeting, the council decided to table the proposal until next year. The council was concerned about unintended consequences, and wanted to have all interested parties get together to work out potential problems.
Representatives from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and state hospital authorities took advantage of the council’s annual "legislative preview" meeting. Both parties presented the council with legislation that would amend FOIA and that they intend to introduce in 2006.
SCHEV wants to be able to take advantage of the electronic meeting rules. The hospital authorities want all hospital authority-related exemptions compiled into one exemption that applies to all entities already mentioned in FOIA, plus a few other entities not specifically named.
David Hallock stepped down from his seat on the council during the summer, after he was appointed to the lottery board. Appointed by Gov. Mark Warner, Hallock was replaced on the council by Mary Yancey Spencer, deputy executive director of the Virginia State Bar.
Finally, at its Nov. 17 meeting, the council staff reported that they had begun thinking of creative ways to participate in Sunshine Week 2006. The Virginia Press Association and the Coalition offered up their help in coming up with ideas and/or putting them into action.
Sunscreen, sunglasses and temporary tattoos were only some of the (half-) jokingly offered gimmicks the council could use to bring legislators’ attention to the week, which encompasses the week of March 16, the birthday of FOIA’s patron saint, James Madison.
Making Your FOIA Life Easier
A seminar for state and local records managers at the Library of Virginia
800 E. Broad St., Richmond
Thursday, May 30, 2013
9:00 - 12:00
Click here for a paper registration form OR
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FOIA Council Subcommittee on Rights & Responsibilities
FOIA Council Subcommittee on Electronic Meetings
Making Your FOIA Life Easier - a records management seminar
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