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Legislative party meetings public when discussing votes

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    News Media Update         VIRGINIA         Freedom of Information    

Legislative party meetings public when discussing votes

  • Virginia’s attorney general announced that when a legislative caucus, a meeting of legislators of the same political party, is held to discuss expected votes, it is conducting public business and the state’s open meeting requirements apply.

Jan. 7, 2004 — A legislative caucus is not a public body under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, but when it is held to discuss upcoming votes, it is conducting public business and the act’s open meetings requirements apply, the state attorney general said in an opinion issued Tuesday.

Legislative caucuses in Virginia are partisan meetings of legislators to discuss strategy, fund-raising and other party business. The meetings, held while the legislature is in session, are announced on the legislative floor, published in the Senate and General Assembly calendars, and held in the state Capitol building. The meetings have traditionally been closed to the public, but the state’s Democrats opened their caucuses last year when they became the minority party.

Retiring delegate Clifton “Chip” Woodrum (D-Roanoke) requested a clarifying opinion from Attorney General Jerry Kilgore with the hope of forcing Republicans to open their caucuses to the public.

In his letter opinion, Kilgore, a Republican, wrote that the caucuses do not fit the state FOI Act’s definition of a “public body” because they are not principally supported by public funds, are not created by a public body and do not officially advise a public body.

However, Kilgore wrote, when three or more legislators meet to discuss public business, the act does apply. Therefore, when the caucuses meet to discuss expected votes on matters before the legislature, members must comply with the open meetings requirements of the act. When they discuss purely political issues, the act does not apply, Kilgore said.

“There are many scenarios, however, that fall into a gray area that is fact dependent,” he noted.

Woodrum said he is disappointed with the opinion.

“The attorney general has clearly obfuscated the issue,” he told The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress. “If you read the Freedom of Information Act, it is directed at the discussion of the issues as well as the votes.”

Pointing to the use of Capitol committee rooms, guards and other resources during caucuses, Woodrum told The Associated Press, “Don’t you think that makes it pretty clear that they’re supported by public funds?”

A day before issuing the opinion, Kilgore proposed a number of state FOI Act reforms, including requiring closed meetings to be taped in case of a future dispute, and preventing state agencies from entering into confidential settlement agreements in civil lawsuits.

GP


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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