Division of Legislative Services > Legislative Record > 2005
Freedom of Information Advisory Council
August 31, 2005
The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council (the Council) held its third quarterly meeting. Among other things, the Council received progress reports from its two subcommittees, reviewed draft FOIA legislation and newly created educational material on FOIA charges, and received a demonstration by VDOT on its "FOIA Tracker" system.
The subcommittee did, however, discuss the application of § 2.2-3708 to local regional public bodies. The subcommittee had previously been requested by the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (the Commission) to authorize them to conduct a pilot project whereby the Commission could meet electronically and report its experiences. The Commission is comprised of public officials representing several jurisdictions which required at least 90 minutes of travel one-way (assuming no traffic) to meetings in Manassas. The long commute to meetings also adversely impacts citizens wishing to attend. The representative of the Commission renewed the request for a pilot project by the Commission under specified conditions as deemed appropriate by the Council and the General Assembly to increase Commission member participation and that of the interested citizens. In response, the Virginia Press Association (VPA) and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG) stated that, although they had not considered a pilot project specifically, a compelling need had not been demonstrated to further expand authorization for the conduct of electronic meetings. Because of the extensive rewrite of the electronic meetings law in 2005, the VPA and VCOG are opposed to further relaxation of the electronic meeting rules at this time.
A representative of the Piedmont Workforce Network (the Network) advised the subcommittee that the Network, required under the federal Workforce Investment Act, was comprised of a board of over 50 members, representing 11 jurisdictions. He advised that for some members, it is a two-hour commute one-way. He reported that due to the large number of members, the Network has trouble with attendance generally and also has trouble achieving a quorum for the conduct of its business. He noted that the ability to conduct electronic meetings would assist in the work of the Network.
A representative of the Virginia Association of Counties (VACO) advised the subcommittee that with shrinking budgets, VACO is encouraging regional cooperation. Authority for conducting electronic meetings would enhance regional cooperation and allow affected citizens to more easily monitor the work of regional groups.
Chairman Edwards stated that interest by local and regional public bodies in conducting meetings by electronic communication means would likely continue and at some future date, the Council would have to revisit the issue. He suggested, however, that for the present, the better course is to live with the 2005 changes to the law and monitor how they work.
Based on its discussion and the public comment received, the subcommittee voted unanimously to recommend to the Council that expanding the authority for the conduct of electronic meetings to regional public bodies was premature at this time in light of the significant relaxation of the procedural rules for electronic meetings made in 2005. Further, the subcommittee would recommend that the issue be revisited next year after some experience with the new rules as it was not insensitive to the needs of regional governments. The subcommittee recommended that in the spring of 2006 a subcommittee be appointed to review the issue of electronic meetings and regional public bodies. Mr. Edwards made a motion that the Council continue to monitor the use of electronic meetings by state public bodies and reconvene a subcommittee in spring 2006 to examine the issue of authorizing the conduct of electronic meetings by regional public bodies. The motion was adopted unanimously.
Mr. Axselle identified the remaining issues to be considered by the subcommittee, including (i) the need to define confidential proprietary information; (ii) whether confidential proprietary information should be accessible to the public and if so, when; (iii) whether the VPPA, PPEA and PPTA (and not just FOIA) should be amended to require a more formalized request for protection of confidential proprietary information submitted by a business and a requirement for the public entity to formally declare what will be considered confidential proprietary information and therefore protected from disclosure.
The Council reviewed draft legislation to require public bodies to advise a requester when a requested record does not exist. As drafted, the bill adds a fifth response to the list of responses a public body must make in response to a request for records under FOIA. Currently, the responses are (i) the records will be provided, (ii) the records will be entirely withheld, (iii) the records will be provided in part and withheld in part, and (iv) the public body needs more time to provide the records or to determine whether they exist. The fifth response required by the bill is for instances where the requested records cannot be provided because the public body is not the custodian of the requested records, the requested records do not exist, or such records cannot be found after diligent search. The public body is required to respond in writing and certify that (i) it is not the custodian of the records and is not in possession of the records, (ii) the requested records do not exist, or (iii) the requested records cannot be found after diligent search. The Council deferred action on the draft until its next meeting to allow more time for review and comment by Council members and other interested parties.
The Council next reviewed a proposed guidance document on allowable charges for record production under FOIA. Although public bodies have the authority to assess charges for the production of records under FOIA, there is still considerable misunderstanding among public bodies and citizens alike on this issue. This much-needed guidance document hopefully will clarify rights and responsibilities, which should lead to enhanced compliance with the FOIA charging provisions. The guidance document will be added to the Council's already broad array of educational materials and will be posted on its website.
Staff presented its report chronicling Mr. Lee Albright's efforts to obtain records from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and, ultimately, Mr. Albright's FOIA suits against VDGIF. Staff advised that Mr. Albright's initial dispute with VDGIF concerned a request for salary records made in October, 2003. An advisory opinion regarding this dispute was issued in March, 2004. After several months of further correspondence between the parties, Mr. Albright sued VDGIF. An out-of-court settlement was reached resolving this dispute in August, 2004.
The second dispute concerned a request made in March, 2004, for meeting minutes of the Board of VDGIF. An advisory opinion regarding this second dispute was issued in December, 2004. This dispute was never resolved, but Mr. Albright let the matter drop after the resignation of the Chairman of the Board of VDGIF in March, 2005.
The third dispute arose after three records requests made in December, 2004, in which Mr. Albright asked for separate advance estimates. While Mr. Albright did receive the desired estimates, he only did so after filing suit, and this dispute was ultimately resolved by a court decision in Mr. Albright's favor in June, 2005.
The fourth dispute arose from a request initially made in October, 2004. While court decisions in Mr. Albright's favor regarding this fourth dispute were issued in June, 2005, and August, 2005, it appears that further litigation may be on-going at this time.
Additionally, it appears that the records generated from Mr. Albright's FOIA requests may have been used to support the State Internal Auditor's investigation of VDGIF earlier this year. While the allegations in the SIA Report raise concerns in regard to FOIA as well as other areas, it appears that significant changes have occurred and continue to be made within VDGIF. Both the Chairman of the Board and the Director of VDGIF have resigned from their positions. The Chairman resigned in March, 2005; the Director resigned in May 2005. VDGIF now has a new acting Director, Col. Gerald Massengill, formerly of the Virginia State Police. At least one other Board member resigned in June, 2005. In addition, it appears that some of the higher-ranking employees named in the SIA Report have also resigned, and news reports have described other organizational changes within VDGIF. News reports have also indicated that a criminal investigation by the Virginia State Police is ongoing into the matters described in the SIA Report.
It appears that dozens of articles, editorials, and commentaries have been published about Mr. Albright's encounters with VDGIF and the SIA Report in various media (three articles may be found on the FOIA Website, which are representative of the reporting on Mr. Albright's experiences in seeking documents from VDGIF through FOIA).
The members of the Council shared Mr. Albright's concern that citizens should not have to endure what Mr. Albright has experienced, especially in light of the mandatory disclosure requirements of FOIA. The Council queried whether Mr. Albright's experience was typical. Mr. Albright indicated that he believed the experience to be an aberration based on the fact that he has made numerous FOIA requests to other units of government who fully complied with the law in providing documents. The Council agreed that at its next meeting it would examine whether changes in the remedies afforded by FOIA should be made.
The Council discussed the need to begin planning for "Sunshine Week" in March 2006. The Council expressed an interest in taking an active part in "Sunshine Week" in 2006 and will begin consideration of the method and nature of its involvement. Ginger Stanley of the Virginia Press Association offered to work with Council staff to develop recommendations for the Council's participation in Sunshine Week.
Senator Houck brought to the Council's attention an editorial from the Staunton News Leader dated August 28, 2005, on the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) and the perceived secrecy with which VITA is overhauling the IT systems of state government. Senator Houck stated that, to his understanding, VITA is not operating outside of the law, but its actions raise significant policy issues regarding public procurement. Senator Houck requested staff to invite VITA to the next Council meeting to discuss their actions in this matter and explain the need for such secrecy.
Frankie R. Giles, assistant policy director of VDOT, demonstrated the VDOT "FOIA Tracker" system. She indicated that VDOT handles between 350 and 400 FOIA requests per year. She explained that with 9,300 VDOT employees and nine districts offices throughout Virginia, VDOT, on its own initiative, developed a centralized system to track and respond to FOIA requests. Benefits already derived from this new system include greater accountability, consistency, and compliance with FOIA; better response for the citizens requesting VDOT records; and real time data analysis for VDOT managers. She reported that development of the "FOIA Tracker" system cost approximately $100,000 and involved four VDOT employees who spent two months to develop the system. The Council commended VDOT for its initiative in the development of the "FOIA Tracker" system and its willingness to investigate ways in which to share its approach with other agencies. In addition, VDOT was commended for building an institutional culture that sends a positive message to its employees about the importance of FOIA.
Staff reported that
for the period June 1, 2005, through August 31, 2005, it had received
a total of 405 inquiries. Of the 405 inquiries, five had been requests
for formal written opinions and 400 informal inquiries coming from telephone
and emails. Citizens accounted for 159 of the informal inquiries, the
government for 194 inquiries, and the media for 47 inquiries. Of the formal
opinions, the breakdown was three requests by citizens and two by government.
Frosty Landon of
the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG) stated that although
Mr. Albright's experience with VGIF was an aberration, it was not unique.
Mr. Landon indicated that it is significant that Mr. Albright went to
the Council first for assistance and not to the courts. He noted that
when the Council was created in 2000, Delegate
The next meeting
of the Council has been scheduled for Thursday, November 17, 2005, at
9:00 a.m. in House Room D of the General Assembly Building in Richmond.
Division of Legislative Services > Legislative Record > 2005