Legislature 2007, aka it could've been worse
By Frosty Landon, Former VCOG executive director
Virginia’s state legislators want us to believe there’s more openness than ever before in the "oldest continuous law-making body in the New World."
It’s hard to argue the point. A generation ago, whole committees still met secretly -- so secretly, in fact, that even legislators themselves could not find out where and when their own committees were meeting.
But that hardly justifies each day’s closed caucuses that recurred in the 2007 sessions -- caucuses that dealt not just with party business but with selection of judges and other important public-policy matters.
Nor does it justify the lack of recorded subcommittee votes that, for a second year, House Republicans allowed. The Washington Post called it a way to "murder bills without leaving footprints."
Nor does it excuse rare lapses when a committee chairman forgets to seek public comment before a key vote.
Nor does it excuse secret pre-session, hotel-room talks that hammered out the 2007 transportation deal, or 11th hour transportation amendments that got embedded without a public hearing (little wonder a firestorm was triggered three months later when the public finally learned of steep surcharges for abusive drivers licensed in Virginia).
Nor does it excuse the continued refusal of the House Rules Committee to allow telecasting and Webcasting of daily House floor sessions, denying citizens a chance to make their own decisions on whether a debate goes on too long or somebody "grandstands" (the perennial excuse for blocking live cameras).
Neither does it justify outdated exemptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act that are not afforded other branches of state and local government.
That said (a Last Hurrah from VCOG’s retired executive director!), here’s a review of mostly good stuff that happened in the ’07 session:
Localities got the go-ahead to introduce electronic filing of campaign-finance reports, working with the State Board of Elections.
Public data was protected in a compromise bill that closed new-voter applications. Registrars’ records of rejected voters will remain open, showing name/address/reason for rejection.
Rules for contract-only remote access to land records were tightened in the code’s disclosure rules for clerks of courts. If nothing else, that keeps public-database restrictions out of FOIA.
With a leaf taken from FOIA, the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act was amended to require a response within five days when a citizen asks to inspect his or her non-public record.
Thanks to freshman senator, Mark Herring, D-Leesburg, Virginia joined two dozen other states and enacted an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law. When a developer brings a lawsuit against a citizen for speaking out against a rezoning, it’s called a SLAPP suit. These suits rarely succeed in court, but they can succeed in keeping citizens away from the microphone at public hearings. Four Powhatan County residents racked up $60,000 in legal fees after a lengthy court battle with a developer who sued them for their opposition to new homes. Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, backed a similar bill in the House.
Just four new FOIA exemptions were added, compared with eight in the previous year. That brought us on July 1 to a nice round number of 150 discretionary exemptions, for records and meetings, for those who keep score.
Another 19 exemptions got amended, compared with 16 in 2006.
Several bills proposed by the FOI Advisory Council gained unanimous backing. Among the more significant FOIA changes:
a requirement that government respond to a record request, even if the agency does not have the record;
relaxed rules for electronic meetings (see FOIAC subcommittee update, page 4);
continued permission for VDOT to withhold internal records for multiple-phase projects;
a closed-meeting exemption for security discussions involving government buildings (a similar record exemption already existed);
a U.Va.-related litigation bill, reaffirming that citizens can bring FOI lawsuits in their own localities;
record and meeting exemptions for local and state retirement systems (for certain investment deals covered by trade secrets);
a one-year exemption for certain information in rabies vaccination certificates;
non-disclosure of executioners’ identities; and
uniform online posting rules for minutes and agendas, for state boards and commissions.
Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, House majority leader, wanted to shut down post-trial access to juror identity, but that measure went to the State Crime Commission for more consideration.
Seven years after it created the FOI Advisory Council, the legislature -- and the State Senate, most especially -- sent nearly all of the more controversial 2007 access bills to the council for a year-long study.
While the House General Laws Subcommittee tossed only a couple of its bills to the council, it was the Senate General Laws Subcommittee that continued to see the benefits of sending nearly all its legislation (plus the House bills) to the council.
Sen. Edd Houck, D-Spotsylvania, chairs the council and the Senate General Laws subcommittee; Morgan Griffith is the council’s vice chair.
As a Staunton News-Leader editorial recognized, referring new FOI bills to the council permits government and access advocates to "mull the deeper ramifications of the laws and make recommendations about whether these laws are necessary or not."
Bills sent this year to the council dealt generally with personal information and electronic meetings. (See FOIAC subcommittee update, page 4.)
Buried within the Senate Courts of Justice Committee was the "scuzzball reporter" bill, an anti-media measure sponsored by Sen. Ken Cuccinelli. The Fairfax Republican sought to criminalize unwanted newsgathering at homes of trauma victims; foes called it unconstitutional and said it would require journalists to be mind-readers. Committee chair Ken Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, reminded Cuccinelli that the state already had an anti-trespass law that applies to everybody, media or not. Prosecutors opposed it, saying it was vague and unenforceable.
"I never heard of such a gratuitous, wholesale attack on the press," said Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond.
The scuzzball bill died; nobody seconded it.
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