FOI Advisory Council Opinion AO-19-04


August 31 , 2004

Mr. Robin Lind
Goochland, Virginia

The staff of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your e-mail of May 17, 2004, and telephone conversation of May 20, 2004.

Dear Mr. Lind:

You have asked a question concerning the application of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to e-mails between members of an electoral board.

Pursuant to § 24.2-106 of the Code of Virginia, every locality in the Commonwealth has a three-member electoral board to administer and oversee the locality's elections. The electoral board is a public body, and § 24.2-107 explicitly states that meetings of local electoral boards are subject to the provisions of FOIA. FOIA defines a meeting at § 2.2-3701 as work sessions, when sitting physically, or through telephonic video equipment pursuant to § 2.2-3708, as a body or entity, or as an informal assemblage of (i) as many as three members or (ii) a quorum, if less than three, of the constituent membership. Because the electoral board is comprised of only three members, a gathering of two members of the board constitutes a quorum, and thus a discussion of public business between two members of an electoral board would be a meeting under FOIA.

In light of this definition of a meeting, you ask if the exchange of e-mails between two members of the electoral board would constitute a meeting under FOIA. You indicate that last year, when you served as chairman of the Goochland Electoral Board, you directed that all e-mails between members of the board be copied to the local registrar for her to keep on file and open to public inspection. However, you now ask if in addition to being a public record, the use of the e-mail constitutes a meeting that should be noticed under FOIA.

The Supreme Court of Virginia recently had the opportunity to address the use of e-mail under FOIA and to determine whether use of e-mail between members of a public body might be subject to the meeting provisions of FOIA.1 The Court held that use of e-mail did not constitute a meeting, because the definition of a "meeting" under FOIA entails a degree of simultaneity. The Court found that e-mail was more akin to traditional forms of written correspondence, such as a letter or a facsimile, and that there may be a significant delay between the time an e-mail communication is sent and received and when a response is sent. It is important to note that the Court stopped short of saying that use of e-mail could never be a meeting under FOIA. The dispositive determination in examining e-mail under the meeting provisions of FOIA is to examine how the e-mail was used. Members of public bodies need not refrain from using e-mail in a manner that is the equivalent of sending a letter; however, members of public bodies should be cautioned against using e-mail in a manner that appears to entail simultaneity.

In conclusion, members of a local electoral board are not violating FOIA by using e-mail to communicate with one another. As you noted in your question, however, e-mails relating to the transaction of public business are public records subject to access under FOIA. Therefore, while not mandated by FOIA, it is a good idea to continue to implement a system such as the one you have described where all e-mails are copied to the registrar and kept on file for public inspection. Furthermore, from a public relations standpoint, it is important to remember that the policy of FOIA at subsection B of § 2.2-3700 is to afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government. Members of public bodies are advised to keep this policy in mind when deciding to use e-mail to communicate with one another concerning substantive matters.

Thank you for contacting this office. I hope that I have been of assistance.


Maria J.K. Everett
Executive Director

1See Beck v. Shelton, No. 030723 (March 5, 2004).