One of the less noticeable features of Virginia’s path is the long-standing tendency of union leaders to make their decisions behind closed doors. to work Virginia Freedom of Information Act assumes that all government matters are public by default and requires officials to justify why exceptions should be made, in practice many Virginia leaders take the opposite position, as if records are private by default and the public must prove they should be treated otherwise.
In this feature, we aim to highlight the frequency with which officials in Virginia resist public access to records related to matters large and small, and to note the instances in which the release of information under FOIA gives public insight into how state agencies operate.
General Assembly FOIA Bills: Gloss V. Wheeler
A bill that clarifies that three or more members of a public body can be in session together without that action being legally considered open, provided they “don’t discuss or transact any public business,” has cleared the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee. this week.
Senate Bill 36 Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, offered it in response to last year’s Virginia Supreme Court decision in Gloss v. Wheeler. In that case, the court found that five members of the Prince William Board of Supervisors violated FOIA by attending a police citizens’ advisory board meeting on local protests over the killing of George Floyd without complying with state law’s public meeting requirements.
During a meeting of the FOIA Advisory Council in December, Rep. R-Colonial Heights, Del. Mike Cherry said the decision had a “chilling effect among many in local government on what they can and cannot do in terms of literally just going. to the Christmas party.”
But while transparency groups said they supported clarifying the definition of a public meeting, they raised concerns that additional language defining a public business could have far-reaching effects that could block access to public records.
The newest version of Locke’s bill would define public business as “an activity performed or proposed to be performed by a public body on behalf of the people it represents.”
Megan Ryan, executive director of the Virginia Open Government Coalition, noted that state law defines public records as any writings and records produced, owned or possessed by a public agency or agent in the “transaction of public business.” That could cause government officials to interpret what records are covered under FOIA very narrowly, he said, preventing the release of reports or information not yet specifically raised by a public body.
“We really think it’s a pretty big change,” Virginia Press Association lobbyist Aimee Perron-Seibert said during the Jan. 24 hearing. “Identifying a public business is a big job, and we prefer to spend more time doing it.”
Nevertheless, the committee passed the bill 15-0. He also passed another draft law Act Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, clarified that the definition of open meeting does not apply to meetings of local political parties.
“This is an attempt to try to allow them to participate in their political gatherings, regardless of party, without it being considered an illegal meeting,” Stuart Wende said.
General Assembly FOIA bills: Payment reform
A draft law Act Sen. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, remains alive, albeit in a watered-down form, that would ban the fees that government agencies can charge to fulfill FOIA requests.
“I’ve made a world of compromises and compromises on this,” Roem told the House Rules Committee on Wednesday.
Roem’s original legislation would have prohibited government agencies from charging people for the first two hours of a records search in response to a FOIA request, as long as the requester had not made more than four records requests in the past 31 days. It would also cap hourly fees for FOIA responses at $33 an hour unless a government agency successfully argues in court that it should charge more.
After a backlash from local government groups, Roem proposed a replacement version that would prohibit agencies from charging for the first hour of a person’s first FOIA request each year and raise the cap to $40 an hour, with exceptions. It would also order government agencies to document all requests they receive that take more than 30 minutes to complete, and ask the FOIA Board to consider whether parts of the law dealing with fees “need to be permanently changed to facilitate requesters’ access to public records.” ”
The bill’s sunset date would be July 1, 2025, which would allow the study to be completed.
The Daily Wire is suing Loudoun schools over housing number disclosures
Right-wing media outlet Daily Wire Sues Loudoun County Public Schools for refusing to disclose how much it paid to settle a lawsuit brought against the department by a Broad Run High School sexual-harassment victim.
This October, reporter Luke Rosiak submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Loudoun schools for a copy of the agreement that settled the victim’s claims. according to Daily Wire’s claimThe division refused to produce the record, which it said was exempt from FOIA because it was an “identifiable student academic record,” contained information directly related to a specific student, and was “a legal memorandum/work product designed specifically for use in litigation.”
Rosiak later filed another FOIA request seeking “financial records” related to Loudoun schools, any legal settlement entered in 2023. The department said it had “no record of any response” to the request.
Augusta County appeals decision requiring disclosure of meeting record
According to the Augusta Free PressThe Augusta County Board of Supervisors voted 6-1 to challenge a recent ruling by a local judge ordering the local judge to turn over the recording of a closed session hearing.
Judge Thomas Wilson IV found before the board did not sufficiently specify the reason for going into closed session on March 20, 2023. Wilson said the staffing exemption cited by the board “does not contain the specificity that I consider. [FOIA] the law requires”.
Azad Matbuat is one of the news agencies looking for the audio recording.
Spotsylvania School Board places superintendent on leave in closed session
The Free Lance-Star reported on this The Spotsylvania County School Board voted in closed session to place controversial superintendent Mark Taylor on administrative leave.
The vote came despite Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act saying state agencies can act on matters discussed in closed session only after reconvening in public.
One board member refused to approve the closed session, saying it violated FOIA.
Have you encountered local or state officials who denied or delayed your FOIA request? Tell us about it: [email protected]