FOIA Council Updates and Opinions, January 2012

The FOIA Council is not recommending any legislation this year. The council created two study committees to consider legislation referred to it from the 2011 session.

After multiple hearings, the council will not recommend legislation related to the bill offered by Sen. Stephen Martin (R-Chesterfield) that would have barred the release of public employee names in connection with their salaries. The council subcommittee, consisting of Fredericksburg City Attorney Kathleen Dooley, Free Lance-Star editor Ed Jones and former VCOG director Forrest Landon, voted 2-1 against a suggestion to move the minimum salary-disclosure level up from $10,000, a level it's been at since the late 1970s.

Another FOIA Council subcommittee has been holding informal stakeholder workgroups to consider a draft proposal offered by the Virginia Press Association to revamp •2.2-3706, which governs access to law enforcement records.

The VPA draft proposes structural changes -- rearranging some sections, for instance -- as well as substantive changes, particularly regarding the release of criminal incident information.

The workgroup -- comprised of access advocates, local government representatives, the Virginia State Police, the sheriff and police chief associations and several local law enforcement agenices -- agreed at its November meeting that it wanted more time to study the draft, a recommendation accepted by the full FOIA Council.

At its November meeting, the FOIA Council heard from representatives of a regional airport authority that it may seek an exemption (if not this session, then next) for certain information contained in its flight manifests and grant applications. The authority noted that the information is exempt in other situations but was concerned that the exemption was written too narrowly for the authority to use.


VCOG "lost" a dear friend in the Virginia Senate on Election Day when Sen. Edd Houck (D-Spotsylvania) was ousted from the seat he has held for 27 years by challenger Bryce Reeves.

With former Del. Chip Woodrum, Lt. Governor Bill Bolling and others, Sen. Houck played a critical role in rewriting Virginia's Freedom of Information Act in 1999 and was the second chair of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council created by that rewrite. He has remained as the Council's chair or vice chair since then. He has also long served as the chair of the Senate General Laws Committee's FOIA subcommittee and has been a loyal VCOG member for a dozen years.

Houck has been a tireless champion for open government in Virginia. And he has always supported consensus-building. At subcommittee and FOIA Council meetings alike he encouraged stakeholders to work together. This consistent voice for compromise and understanding has fostered a trusting, collegial relationship among access advocates and state and local government representatives virtually unmatched in other states.

A Free Lance-Star editorial said it best: "We applaud Mr. Houck's longtime efforts on behalf of FOIA and encourage Mr. Reeves to follow in his footsteps in that regard. There is no more important way to serve constituents than to ensure they have appropriate access to information about their government."

Sen. Houck, THANK YOU.


In AO-01-11, the FOIA Council ruled that a settlement sealed by court order is exempt from mandatory disclosure under FOIA.

In AO-02-11, the council determined that it was OK for the Department of Corrections to withhold a list of female inmates that shows the inmates' names, state identification numbers and names of the facilities where they are incarcerated.

The council found in AO-03-11 that certain records related to inspections and violations of relevant health and safety laws held by the Virginia Occupation Safety and Health Compliance Program are exempt from disclosure.

The council reiterated in AO-04-11 that if a record contains both exempt and non-exempt material, only the exempt material may be withheld. (The council's opinion came in response to a request from Charles Landis, the Onancock citizen currently in litigation with the town manager over his refusal to release an unredacted copy of his employment contract. The manager said the redaction of his name/signature was "for obvious reasons.")

In AO-05-11, the council noted that while a volunteer rescue squad can be a public body for purposes of releasing records under FOIA, it is not a public body for purposes of FOIA's meeting provisions.

In AO-06-11, the council rejected the suggestion that mug shots were not public records because they did not have writing on them. Noting that many mug shots do have writing on them, the council said that the definition of "public records" clearly would include all photos.

In AO-07-11, the council summarized the requirements for making and responding to a FOIA request.