The General Assembly adjourned with many opportunities left on the table

The 2023 General Assembly adjourned Feb. 26 without a complete budget and without taking full advantage of legislation offered to make citizen access to records and meetings easier or better. There’s nothing super egregious, but there’s also not as much to get excited about, either.

Because access is not a partisan issue — neither the Republicans or the Democrats are traditional FOIA allies — the fate of these bill wasn’t a casualty of a divided legislature. Good and bad bills passed and failed in both chambers.

On the plus side, bills to subject the Parole Board to FOIA (it has been entirely exempt for decades), and to require the posting of information about how fees for FOIA requests will be calculated both passed. And there was a bill having to do with live-streaming of state public body meetings and one having to do with accepting electronic payment for FOIA requests, both of which passed, but both of which got watered down far beyond what their original intent was. A bill to require disclosure of judges who’ve been disciplined by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission also passed.

And, for VCOG’s purposes, we were pleased that a few attempts to continue to expand the opportunities for local public bodies, advisory boards and regional bodies to meet entirely by Zoom, were reined in, as was a bill that would have shielded the names of neighbors calling in to localities to complain about things like their neighbor’s pool fence or overgrown grass.

On the other hand, the legislature defeated bills instigated by VCOG to make the amount local governments pay to settle claims against it more transparent and one to prohibit the redacting of an employee’s name off of a credit card statement by claiming a name is a security control. It defeated bills aimed at transparency in higher education. And a bill to require some measure of live-streaming of local public body meetings was killed on the House floor.

A broadly written exemption for Fort Monroe got passed, as did a bill to allow active and retired judges and magistrates to demand that their addresses be taken off of publicly available property information systems.

Transparency legislation is popular among the public. It is nonpartisan, so there’s an opportunity for every single legislator to make transparency and access under FOIA a priority. A few folks at the GA do this, but many more should. Otherwise they’re passing up yet another opportunity.

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