Virginia’s House of Representatives wants every municipal body – every city council, school board, and county government – to follow the state’s rapidly improving Freedom of Information Act. But it doesn’t want to let the sun shine in the General Assembly.
The House recently voted 52-48 to exempt the General Assembly from the open-meeting provision of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The bill, pushed by House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, now heads to the Senate, where it could encounter stiffer opposition. Under the bill, the Joint Rules Committee, which consists of senior senators and delegates, would decide which legislative meetings are open to the public.
An opinion issued last month by state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, R., said daily legislative caucuses of the two political parties are not public bodies covered by the FOIA. But such gatherings would be considered public if members discussed an upcoming vote on the floor.
Griffith's proposal would allow private caucus meetings and unannounced, informal gatherings in which legislators could decide the fate of a controversial bill without public scrutiny, coming into public session only for the vote.
SPJ urges its members to write and call to express their opposition to this major step backward. A copy of SPJ's letter is below
Contact any or all of the following Virginia officials.
Sen. John Chichester, President Pro-Tem, VA Senate FAX: 804-698-7651 firstname.lastname@example.org
Constituent hotline for any questions: 1-800-889-0229
Mailing Addresses: House of Delegates, PO Box 406, Richmond, VA 23218
Senate, PO Box 396, Richmond, VA 232 18
Governor and Lt. Gov, State Capitol Bldg., Richmond, VA23219
SPJ Letter to Lawmakers
March 1, 2004
SUBJECT: Legislation exempting the Virginia General Assembly from the Freedom of Information Act.
Dear Lawmaker: We write on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the nation’s largest association of working journalists, to ask you to oppose H.B. 1357, which would exempt the General Assembly from the meeting requirements of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Open government – especially open legislatures – serve an important purpose in our democracy
This across-the-board FOIA exemption for legislative meetings will deprive Virginia residents of access to important information about their state government. In addition, it sends a terrible message to state, county and local boards, commissions and agencies. If passed, it will trigger not just public outrage, but it will foster greater cynicism and distrust of state government.
The General Assembly has made tremendous progress in recent years in tightening open-meeting and open-record rules. Virginia now ranks in the top 10 in use of the Internet to bring sunshine into legislative activity. Creation of the full-time FOI Advisory Council has made the state a national leader in finding innovative ways to assure FOIA compliance without constant litigation. Legislative committees increasingly provide good prior notice for draft legislation and advance meeting dockets. This record for openness makes Virginia’s sudden and total rejection of the Freedom of Information Act meeting provisions for its legislature all the more disturbing.
We agree with state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, that H.B. 1357 is a “terrible bill … [that] presumes that the legislature is a private club.” If passed, public access to meetings in which most legislative work is done will be at the discretion of a small group members. Changes in the committee’s composition could alter the public’s right of access from one session to the next. Furthermore, committee members will be able to use their power to close sessions where controversial views they support are discussed and open sessions when it would be most embarrassing to their opponents.
The bill passed the House of Delegates on a narrow 52-48 vote, with 13 Republicans voting against it. It is noteworthy that other Republican delegates in private expressed serious reservations about the bill but in public were reluctant to break ranks and oppose it.
SPJ urges members of the General Assembly to reconsider this ill-advised decision and defeat H.B. 1357.
Nationally, SPJ includes more than 10,000 reporters, editors and news executives who work for print, broadcast and electronic news outlets. The D.C. Professional Chapter includes about 350 journalists who report on national and local government, many of whom live in Virginia. The Virginia Pro Chapter includes 75 journalists from the area around Richmond, Va. These journalists have a vital interest in protecting the public’s right to the free flow of information about the Virginia General Assembly.
Charles N. Davis and Joel Campbell, co-chairs Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee
Robert S. Becker SPJ Washington, D.C. Sunshine Chair Washington, D.C. Professional Chapter
Brian Eckert, president SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter
Cc: Sen. John Chichester Delegate William J. Howell Delegate Brian Moran Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine Gov. Mark Warner
----- SPJ FOI ALERT SUBSCRIPTION NOTE ----- SPJ FOI Alert Vol. 9; No. 7
To subscribe to the Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert, contact SPJ at email@example.com or call 317/927-8000. In your message, provide your name, organization, mailing address, e-mail address, phone number and fax number. There is no fee. We strongly encourage the wide dissemination and publication of these alerts in other forums.