After crossover, we need more votes for sunshine

It’s Crossover Day at the General Assembly. Surviving House bills make their last bid to cross over to the Senate, where they’ll meet Senate bills headed in the opposite direction.

Quite a winnowing has taken place until now. Of the nearly 70 bills that VCOG started tracking at the opening of the session, barely half that many remain.

I owe thanks to the several legislators who listened to my concerns (not onlymine) and made adjustments to their bills or withdrew them: Delegates Rob Bloxom, Betsy Carr, Sally Hudson, Alfonso Lopez, Shelly Simonds and Michael Webert, and Senators Creigh Deeds and Emmett Hanger.

An even bigger thanks goes out to Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Sen. Scott Surovell for carrying bills at VCOG’s suggestion.

What the public doesn’t often understand about the legislative process is that the legislators may introduce the bill and may offer amendments and substitutes, but they are not always the people behind the bill, the people writing those amendments and substitutes. I don’t mean anything nefarious by that; see the previous two paragraphs for proof that I am one of those people. That’s what lobbyists and associations and advocacy groups and state and local governments do.

So, it’s with an understanding that the legislators aren’t 100% to blame or to take credit for what happens to a bill, that I nonetheless offer some frustration with what’s happened so far.

The good news: lawmakers voted down a bill to make the names of local nuisance complainants exempt from disclosure under FOIA. They also defeated a measure to allow local governments to use all-virtual meetings as often as they like.

And they voted for a bill to require public bodies to publish their policies on FOIA fees and one to prevent names from being redacted from copies of credit card statements (one of VCOG’s bills). And one measure with a broader scope includes a provision to take away the get-out-of-FOIA-free status for the Parole Board.

On the other hand, the bills that have died, the bills that have been advanced and the bills that have been heavily amended leave me downtrodden.

Here’s the condensed version: Take advantage of technology to meet all-virtually more often, but don’t use it to stream meetings, provide electronic public access or electronic public comment, or to accept payment for records. Don’t open up access to disciplinary records of certain public safety offices, but instead close off more of them. Don’t narrow exemptions or restrictions to cover only the specific need, but leave them broad enough to swallow even more. 

These bills were voted down:

  • One that would grant some measure of access to completed police disciplinary investigation files.

  • One that would require a record to be created of how much a locality spent to settle a claim against it (the other of VCOG’s bills).

Here are bills they’ve kept alive, ones that would:

  • Allow the home addresses of active and retired state and federal judges and magistrates to be taken off local land records databases forever.

  • Give the Ft. Monroe Authority an exemption to protect the financial records of developers and – because it is written so broadly – potentially much more.

  • Expand an exemption for personnel-related records of EMTs, emergency personnel and others.

  • Allow advisory boards to meet all-virtually for up to half of their meetings.

And here’s what is in some ways worse. These were pro-citizen access bills that were amended so heavily that it’s fair to ask what the point of them is now. I don’t know who pushed for these amendments, but – as noted above – it’s not usually coming from the legislator.

  • A bill that would have required state agencies to provide the public with electronic access to their meetings and allow the public to make comments electronically – something FOIA already allows them to do – was amended heavily to make everything permissive: A state agency “may” allow electronic access, and the state agency “may” provide electronic public comment. It also now includes a mind-scrambling provision that says they can’t be found in violation of the statute in the event of an accidental loss of audio or video feed. That is, the bill says they now may do it, but they don’t have to do it, but if they do it and it accidentally messes up, then they haven't violated the law they didn’t have to follow in the first place. My head hurts.

  • A bill that would have required local public bodies to livestream their meetings was amended to say that they only have to do it if it can be done for under $100. Now, I’m the first in line to point out that recording and live streaming can be accomplished with the technological equivalent of a moped instead of a Maserati. Still, please raise your hand if you think public bodies won't easily find that the moped version is going to breach the $100 limit.

  • A bill that would have required local public bodies to accept electronic payment for FOIA charges had to be amended to be permissive to advance it past the committee. As with the above, FOIA already allows electronic payments (in fact, FOIA is silent about this, so public bodies can handle it any way they like and they do), but now the amended version says the locality “may” provide for electronic payments.

That’s the sausage factory. I get it. But getting it doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing to see year after year the bills and votes and amendments that push back on citizen access to the records, meetings and proceedings of their government. 

There’s still the second half of this session. So can I just say, we need more votes for SUNSHINE!

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