Division of Legislative Services > Legislative Record > 2005
Freedom of Information Advisory Council
June 21, 2005
The Freedom of Information Advisory Council (the Council) held its second quarterly meeting of 2005 to receive progress reports from the two subcommittees and consider other matters previously discussed.
Electronic Meetings Subcommittee
The Electronic Meetings Subcommittee met on June 8, 2005, to discuss the appropriateness of expanding authorization for the conduct of electronic meetings to local regional authorities and other local public bodies pursuant to House Bill 2760 (Delegate Reese).
Mr. Roger Wiley, representing the local government perspective, told the subcommittee that obtaining a quorum for local regional authorities is a problem due to the several jurisdictions served by a regional authority and the distance between the jurisdictions and the meeting site. He indicated that some regional authorities serve as many as 18 jurisdictions. Mr. Wiley noted that reimbursement for travel and expenses is a very real cost in addition to the inefficiencies of requiring county and city executives to spend one-half day just in travel to and from regional meetings. He pointed out that service on a regional authority is a very ancillary duty when compared with the principal responsibilities of county and city executives. He noted that the practical effect of restricting the use of available technology is forcing inefficiency on local government while at the same time complaining that local government should operate more like a business. Mr. Wiley reported that the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties had suggested the appointment of lower echelon personnel to regional authority boards as a way to eliminate the problem of obtaining a quorum on the theory that they would not be as busy as a city manager, for example. The experience however did not bear this out and the problem persists. Allowing local officials to participate electronically would alleviate scheduling conflicts and improve attendance. The subcommittee was asked to consider allowing a minority of a regional authority board to meet by electronic means, but to require the quorum of the board to be physically present at the meeting site.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG) indicated that its board of directors expressly opposes expansion of the authorization for the conduct of electronic meetings to local governing bodies or local regional authorities. Because of the substantial rewrite of the electronic meetings statute in 2005, time is needed to gain experience and collect data under the new rules for electronic meetings. It was noted that as new communication technologies are developed, there is more opportunity for abuse of open meeting principles.
The Virginia Press Association (VPA) concurred with the remarks of VCOG although it stated that it was aware of the imposition on individual members of local public bodies. However, the membership of the VPA has expressed opposition to any further loosening of electronic meeting rules in light of the significant concessions made in the law in 2005. It was noted that with electronic meetings there is less interaction among the members of the public body, and visual cues such as body language are lacking. Expansion of the use of electronic meetings to local regional authorities is viewed as premature in light of the changes to the electronic meetings law in 2005. Additionally, allowing local regional authorities to conduct electronic meetings would not solve the problem of establishing a quorum as the current law requires a quorum of a state public body to be physically assembled at the main meeting location.
A representative of Stafford County suggested allowing a designated regional authority to meet electronically as a pilot program and report its experiences with electronic meetings. In lieu of creating a pilot project, it was suggested that regional authorities consider rotating the meeting locations among the member jurisdictions to spread the burden of travel among the participating jurisdictions.
The PPEA (Public
Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act) Subcommittee met
on June 8, 2005 to discuss the current FOIA records exemption found at
§ 2.2-3705.6 (11). This subcommittee was created as a result of HB
2672 (Delegate Plum), which was referred to the FOIA Council for study
by the 2005 General Assembly. Concern was expressed by the VCOG and the
Associated General Contractors of Virginia that the current record exemption
for PPEA and PPTA proposals is being used to withhold more records than
are authorized under the exemption. It was noted that more transparency
from the start of PPEA projects is needed, especially at the local government
level. Part of the perception of secrecy stems from the lack of criteria
by which to distinguish truly confidential proprietary information from
other types of information. Businesses all too often earmark all documents
submitted to government as proprietary and thus thwart disclosure of records
related to the procurement process. It was suggested that confidential
proprietary information needs to be defined to protect information which
is truly confidential and is protected for all purposes and at all times
(i.e., proprietary records that need to be protected notwithstanding the
procurement process) versus information the business would prefer not
to have released, but which is related to the procurement transaction.
It was suggested that the latter should become open when a binding agreement
is entered into. Additionally, it was suggested that the exemption should
specify the time when certain records of the transaction are to be made
available. It was suggested that when a public entity has all of the proposals,
the deadlines for submission are over, and the public entity begins its
review of the proposals, vendors have less need for competitive protection
Under the PPEA, procurement records are required to be released once a comprehensive agreement has been entered into. This is consistent with the Virginia Public Procurement Act (VPPA), which provides public access to procurement records once a contract is awarded. Under the VPPA, bidders have an earlier right than the public to inspect procurement records to ensure the fairness of the process. However, the PPEA does not contain a similar provision. Further, in 2005, the PPEA was amended to authorize the award of interim agreements. In light of this amendment, the subcommittee decided that this issue should be considered as part of its work. The subcommittee felt that if the agreement is binding on the parties, it should be available to the public. The nature of interim agreements was discussed. Many interim agreements are the staging agreements for the entire project and may include separate agreements for preliminary engineering studies, environmental work, design of the project, and finally, construction of the project. Interim agreements are used to avoid unnecessary delay on a project.
As a result of its discussions, the subcommittee by consensus agreed to examine the following issues:
Concern was raised that with the expenditure of substantial public dollars for PPEA projects, the public's right of inspection comes only at the end of the process. In question was whether it was the intent of the law to let the public know only after the agreement. Staff noted that in both the PPEA and the VPPA, the public right of inspection of procurement records occurs only after the contract has been awarded. Staff noted, however, that both Acts require public notice of the nature of the work to be undertaken at the beginning of the process.
The subcommittee stated that the balance necessary for development of good public policy is to facilitate competition while at the same time ensuring the public confidence in the decisions of government, especially when expending substantial public funds. The subcommittee agreed that it needed to hear from the private sector as it continues its deliberations.
The Council at its last meeting had discussed whether a mandated fifth response to a FOIA request-the requested records do not exist- was needed and directed staff to examine this issue more fully and present a proposal for the Council's consideration. Currently under FOIA, a public body is under no obligation to create records that do not exist in response to a specific request nor is a public body required to respond to a requester if the requested record does not exist. The lack of a required response in these instances leads to confusion and exacerbates any feelings of distrust. The Council, in a written opinion (AO-16-04) has previously opined that a public body should make this written response where applicable in order to avoid confusion and frustration on the part of the requester. Staff advised that it was still working on draft language to present for the Council's consideration, but noted that the task was more difficult than first anticipated. Part of the difficulty was that the response "the records do not exist" may raise more questions than it answers and contribute to feelings of distrust. Members of the Council stated that it seemed a matter of common courtesy for a public body to advise a requester when the requested records do not exist. Staff advised that it will continue to work on draft language.
The Council next discussed the status of a guidance document for publication on the Council's website clarifying a public body's obligations under FOIA in light of "value added" public records produced through the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) and subject to a licensing agreement with the requester. Staff advised that it has been working with VITA to develop a guidance document for publication on the Council's website and that a draft of guidance document will be ready for the Council's review at the next meeting.
RECENT VIRGINIA SUPREME COURT DECISION ON FOIA
Staff advised the Council of the latest Virginia Supreme Court case involving FOIA in the case of Cartwright v. Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner of Virginia, 613 S.E. 2d 449. The issue before the court was whether the circuit court (in Chesapeake) erred in denying a petition for a writ of mandamus brought in accordance with FOIA (§ 2.2-3713) on the ground that the petitioner had an adequate remedy at law. The facts that gave rise to the case involved a FOIA request made by a citizen for particular documents prepared by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). Specifically, Mr. Cartwright made a FOIA request to VDOT for a photocopy of a "sales brochure" compiled by VDOT relating to VDOT's highway construction project in Chesapeake. Mr. Cartwright is a property owner affected by the project and a party to the condemnation proceeding. Mr. Cartwright's FOIA request was denied and VDOT cited two FOIA exemptions as the basis for the denial. Mr. Cartwright had also sought the same records through discovery served on VDOT.
Mr. Cartwright filed
a FOIA petition for mandamus to compel production of the sales brochure.
The trial court ruled in favor of VDOT and agreed that "mandamus
The Supreme Court noted that this was the first time it had considered whether a writ of mandamus filed as specifically authorized in FOIA may be denied because of the availability of another adequate remedy at law.
The Supreme Court held that the circuit court erred in denying Mr. Cartwright's petition for mandamus. In its decision, the Court stated, "We hold that a citizen alleging a violation of the rights and privileges afforded by the FOIA and seeking relief by mandamus pursuant to Code § 2.2-3713 (A) is not required to prove a lack of adequate remedy at law, nor can the mandamus proceeding be barred on the ground that there may be some other remedy at law available."
Staff reported that for the period March 23, 2005 through May 31, 2005, it had received a total of 347 inquiries. Of the 347 inquiries, seven had been requests for formal written opinions and 337 were informal inquiries coming from telephone and emails. Citizens accounted for 143 of the informal inquiries, the government for 145 inquiries, and the media for 49 inquiries. Of the formal opinions, the breakdown was five requests by citizens and two by government.
Staff also reported that the Council-sponsored Symposium on Children's Records scheduled for Tuesday, June 21, 2005, expected approximately 40 attendees representing law-enforcement agencies, educational institutions, and social services agencies.
Planning has begun
for the 2005 FOIA Workshops to be held in five statewide locations--Abingdon,
Harrisonburg, Richmond, Norfolk, and
Bob Gibbons, a member of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, discussed two issues with the Council. The first issue concerned the PPEA and mistrust of the process by the public. He advised that the PPEA works and that public bodies want to use it, but are electing to use traditional procurement processes to avoid exacerbating public mistrust. Additionally, Mr. Gibbons requested the Council to consider expanding the authority for electronic meetings to regional public bodies. He indicated that most members of regional public bodies must travel 75 to 100 miles for a one hour meeting. He suggested that authorization for audio/visual meetings only (and not teleconferences) should be explored for a selected regional public body as a way to provide more public access and to receive more public comment. He requested that the Council consider a one-year pilot project.
Lee Albright, a Nelson
County citizen, advised the Council of his attempts to get records from
next meeting of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council is scheduled for Wednesday, August 31, 2005.
Division of Legislative Services > Legislative Record > 2005