HJR 501

Joint Subcommittee to Study the Virginia Freedom of Information Act

June 2, 1999, Richmond

Beginning its second year of study, the joint subcommittee held its first meeting of the 1999 interim to review the various state freedom of information or "sunshine office" models. In addition, the joint subcommittee developed a tentative work plan, including identifying and prioritizing issues and planning future meetings.

In Virginia, no agency has implementation or enforcement authority relative to the open-meeting or open-record requirements under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While Virginia law does provide for public bodies to make reasonable efforts to reach agreement with requestors regarding public records, there is no statutory provision mandating alternative dispute resolution, nor does there exist a statewide informal or voluntary program to resolve disputes that may arise in the day-to-day operation of public bodies.

The creation of a "sunshine office"–an agency, however structured or denominated, responsible for the enforcement or implementation of public access laws–is one issue that was carried over by the joint subcommittee for consideration during the second year of the study. Many states have created such an office, with the models varying depending on the state. The state offices selected for review were Indiana, Maryland, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Connecticut, Georgia, Washington, Hawaii, and North Carolina.

"Sunshine" Offices–State Models


Agency: Public Access Counselor. Statutory office; attorney appointed by the Governor for four-year term, but may be removed for cause. Responsible for open records and open meetings laws, or any other state statute or rule governing access to public meetings or public records.

Public Access Counselor's powers and duties:

There is no requirement in Indiana that an aggrieved party exhaust administrative remedies before pursuing a lawsuit under public access laws. Currently, the Indiana Attorney General, in cooperation with the Hoosier State Press Association, publishes The Open Door Law and the Access to Public Records Act, which includes an overview of both laws, answers to some commonly asked questions, and information about contacting the Public Access Counselor.


Agency: The Open Meetings Compliance Board. The board is advisory and limited to open meetings issues only.

Open Meetings Compliance Board:

A person may bypass the board and initiate court action.


Agency: The Office of the Attorney General operates an informal and voluntary Public Mediation Program for open meetings and open records disputes.

Public Mediation Program:

The Attorney General's Office produces and routinely updates a manual which serves as a reference guide to judicial decisions, statutes, and advisory Attorney General Opinions relating to the Public Records Law and the Sunshine Law. It is available at no cost via the Internet. Hard copies are printed by the First Amendment Foundation and sold to recover printing costs.

Under the Open Government Sunset Review Act of 1995, new exemptions or substantial amendment of existing exemptions for both laws are repealed after 5 years unless the legislature takes action to reenact the exemption.


Agency: The Office of the Attorney General serves as an impartial tribunal with the authority to issue legally binding decisions in regard to open meetings and access to public records issues.

Attorney General:

New York

Agency: The Advisory Committee on Open Government, established within the New York Department of State, is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meeting Law.

Advisory Committee on Open Government:


Agency: Freedom of Information Commission.

Freedom of Information Commission:


Agency: None.

Legislation effective July 1, 1998, authorizes the Attorney General to bring enforcement actions, either civilly or criminally, to enforce compliance with the open meetings and open records laws.


Agency: In all public records cases, except denials by local government agencies, the requestor may ask the Office of the Attorney General to provide a written opinion on whether the record is exempt.

Public Records Act:

The Office of the Attorney General, working with Allied Daily Newspapers and local government organizations, produces a citizens guide which gives a brief explanation of the laws. In addition, the office also produces a comprehensive manual intended to clarify provisions of the law and prevent future disagreements.


Agency: The Office of Information Practices (OIP) located in the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.

Office of Information Practices:

Open Records:

North Carolina

Agency: The Sunshine Office operated by the Office of the Attorney General.

Sunshine Office:


By consensus, the joint subcommittee agreed that if a sunshine office were to be established in Virginia it would be preferable to create such an office as an independent agency, which would not be subject to direct political pressure as it serves Virginia's citizens and state and local public bodies. Although four of the 10 state sunshine office models reviewed were affiliated with that state's Attorney General's office, this model was not favored by the joint subcommittee because of the perception of a conflict of interest. In Virginia, the Office of the Attorney General is responsible for the representation of state agencies but may be required, if assigned a sunshine office role, to rule against those same state agencies in FOIA disputes. It was made clear that the issues weighing against placement of a sunshine office in the Office of the Attorney General were of a structural nature and not an operational one.

Support for the further examination of the creation of a sunshine office was expressed by the Coalition for Open Government, the Virginia Association of Broadcasters, the Virginia Municipal League, and the Virginia Press Association.

Other Study Issues

Other issues identified for further consideration during the second year of study include:

The next meeting of the joint subcommittee, to discuss an appropriate sunshine office model in Virginia, has been tentatively scheduled for late June in Richmond.

The Honorable Clifton A. Woodrum, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Maria J. K. Everett