Potomac News Online | FOIA changed to allow more electronic meetings

RICHMOND, Va. – State boards will be able to hold more meetings by electronic hookups starting July 1 because of changes to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

However, local boards and commissions will have to continue to meet in person. Legislation to extend the electronic meetings privilege to them was shelved by the 2005 General Assembly.

Both developments were praised by open-government advocates, who said the legislative session that ended in February was one of their most successful in recent years. None of the bills they opposed, including the local electronic meetings measure, made it out of the house in which they were introduced.

“I don’t know whether it was because this is an election year or whether the legislature is getting more sensitive to the need for transparency in government,” said Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

All 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election in November.

Under the new law, state boards will be required to have only one totally face-to-face meeting per year. Electronic participation will be allowed in all others.

Boards now are allowed to conduct no more than 25 percent of their meetings by video or teleconferencing.

Looser rules enacted for electronic meetings as an experiment in 1999 require only that a quorum be present in the state. Under the new law, a quorum will have to be present at the primary meeting location.

Also, public notice of electronic meetings will be reduced from 30 days to seven days. Minutes of those meetings will be required to specify which members tuned in from remote locations.

Landon and Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, said the changes are the product of a year of discussions between government officials and open-government advocates.

“The only area we gave ground on was the number of meetings that can be held electronically,” Stanley said. “We were adamant about having a quorum in a central location.”

Landon said requiring a public record of remote attendance will allow citizens to judge whether officials are staying home too much. Also, many citizens will be able to sit in on meetings closer to home rather than drive to Richmond or another distant meeting site, he said.

“This holds promise for greater public access,” Landon said.

Local bodies, on the other hand, should have little trouble getting together for face-to-face meetings, Landon said.

“It’s one thing to have the convenience of electronic meetings for someone like (state Sen. William) Wampler in Bristol. It’s another to have it from one side of Fairfax to the other,” Landon said.

A House committee referred the local government proposal to the state Freedom of Information Advisory Council for further study.

“We believe face-to-face is the best form of public forum, but we’re realists and understand the limitations for the state boards,” Stanley said.

However, just because state boards are authorized to conduct more electronic meetings doesn’t mean they will.

“The most benefit is gleaned by people actually being there and engaged without the barrier of a phone or a satellite linkup,” said Kala Quintana, director of public outreach for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.

She said a survey of the commission’s 20 members found a strong preference for in-person meetings. The commission has limited its electronic meetings to dates when the legislature is in session. Six members are lawmakers.

In addition to the local government electronic meetings issue, the FOIA Council has been asked to study legislation to keep secret the electronic mail addresses of citizens who sign up to receive e-mail correspondence from the government. Those records are now open unless the citizen asks the government to withhold them.

Virginia is one of only eight states with a council devoted to advising the public and government on freedom of information issues. The council, created in 2002, issues about 1,200 informal opinions and 30 to 40 written opinions annually, according to executive director Maria J.K. Everett.

Citizens request the most opinions, followed by government officials and the press, Everett said.

Landon and Stanley say the council also has been a valuable tool for thoroughly examining complicated or controversial FOIA legislation.

The council’s work and that of open-government advocates apparently is paying dividends. A 2002 survey by the Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Better Government Association rated Virginia’s freedom of information law the nation’s fifth best, with a grade of B-minus.


On the Net:

Virginia Coalition for Open Government: https://www.opengovva.org

Virginia Press Association: https://www.vpa.net

Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council: https://dls.state.va.us/foiacouncil.htm

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