|NMU||VIRGINIA||Freedom of Information||Feb 17, 2000|
Legislature approves open government advisory council
- Proposed council would educate the public about freedom of information and issue advisory opinions regarding whether certain records should be public.
The Virginia Legislature approved a plan Feb. 15 to create a Freedom of Information Advisory Council that would issue guidelines for — and educate the public about — the state’s open records and meetings laws.
The 12-member council, which would act under the auspices of the Legislature, would be composed of lawmakers and other government officials, at least one news media representative and members of the public.
Part of the council’s role will be to issue, upon request from government officials or private citizens, non-binding advisory opinions on whether a particular record should be public under the records law. The opinions will not have the force of law, but are intended to be instructive on what rights citizens have to access government information.
Currently, the only other option for people who are denied records is to sue in court, although government officials may request a formal attorney general’s opinion on whether the record is public, a process that normally takes eight to nine months. The council would provide an expedited and non-adversarial option to appeal denials of public record requests.
The call for such a council came, in part, from the state’s open government advocates and news media, which were instrumental in getting Virginia last year to overhaul its 30-year-old Freedom of Information law. Deficiencies in the law were identified by 14 newspapers and the Associated Press, which conducted an audit in 1998 to measure how well local governments complied with the then-existing public access laws.
The study found that law enforcement agencies had the worst rates of compliance, denying almost 80 percent of requests for public records. School departments, local governments and health inspectors fared better, with denial rates ranging from about 50 percent for school athletic coach contracts to only 12 percent for restaurant inspection reports.
The new law, which Gov. James Gilmore has indicated he will sign, would establish the council on an interim basis through July 2002, at which time lawmakers could revisit the issue and decide to make the council permanent. The House of Delegates approved the measure by a 92-7 vote, and the state Senate voted unanimously in favor with a 39-0 vote.
(H.B. 551; S.B. 340)
© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press