HJR 501

Joint Subcommittee to Study the Virginia Freedom of Information Act

August 16, 1999, Richmond

This summer, the joint subcommittee's efforts have been focused on the creation of a "sunshine office"—that is, an agency, however structured or denominated, which would be responsible for the implementation of Virginia's public access laws. The joint subcommittee has reviewed the sunshine office models from ten states: Indiana, Maryland, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Connecticut, Georgia, Washington, Hawaii and North Carolina. Each state offers a different model, ranging from an office within the office of the attorney general to the creation of an advisory committee. Most offices issue advisory opinions, conduct training for state and local public officials, and publish some type of FOIA manual.

In Virginia, no agency has implementation or enforcement authority relative to the open meeting or open record requirements under the 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.

Public Comments

The purpose of the joint subcommittee's third meeting was to receive public comment on the creation of a sunshine office in Virginia. Is a sunshine office desirable in Virginia? If so, what form should it take? What responsibilities should it have? Are there suggested models for a sunshine office? Or, if there are problems, now is the time to identify them.

The subcommittee heard from representatives of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, the Virginia Press Association, and the Virginia Association of Broadcasters. These representatives supported the creation of a small, independent office in the legislative branch and emphasized the importance of training, the quick resolution of FOIA disputes, and the issuance of nonbinding, advisory opinions as proper functions for such an office.

Several county attorneys expressed reservations about the powers given to a sunshine office as it relates to the issuance of advisory opinions. Such opinions should have only prospective application, be given no weight as evidence, and should be inadmissible in a court proceeding. Additionally, there was discussion that a request for an advisory opinion should toll the statutory time required for response for a request for records.

The meeting concluded with a review of the sunshine office draft prepared by staff. The joint subcommittee encouraged the interested parties to continue to submit comments on, and amendments to, the draft.

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