Virginia Gets a Freedom of Information Office
by Forrest M. Landon
The General Assembly has approved the establishment of a "sunshine office," which will advocate improved compliance with the state's Freedom of Information Act and help individual citizens gain greater access to public meetings and records. Passage was unanimous in the State Senate. On the final House vote, only two members voted "no."
A 12-member Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, which reports through the legislative branch of government, will oversee the office. An executive director will handle its day-to-day operations, issue advisory opinions, informally mediate access disputes, conduct training programs, and publish informational materials. The director and the Council will make recommendations on future changes to the Freedom of Information Act.
The bill establishing the office calls for an assessment of its performance after two years; a decision will then be made on making the two-person agency permanent. The new state budget will provide $181,000 for the initial year, and $148,000 for 2001-02. The new office will be the first in the nation to be based in a state government's legislative operations. The Gilmore Administration wanted it moved to the executive branch, but withdrew its opposition after a 2002 reauthorization requirement was put into the law.
Approval of the office followed a two-year FOIA study by a special legislative subcommittee chaired by Del. Chip Woodrum, Roanoke Democrat. Woodrum and a second commission member, State Sen. Bill Bolling, Republican from Hanover, were the chief sponsors of the legislation. Funding was sponsored by Woodrum and Del. Joe May, Republican from Loudoun County, who was also a commission member. The FOI office had been sought by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, which media groups and the Virginia Library Association helped organize in 1996 to aid citizens in accessing public information.
Two legislators and five public members will be named to the Advisory Council. Other members will be E. M. Miller, director of the Division of Legislative Services; Nolan Yelich, librarian of Virginia, or his designee; and representatives of the Office of Attorney General and local and state government.
The executive director is expected to be Maria K. Everett, a DLS senior staff attorney who works on FOI legislation for the House of Delegates and served as chief counsel for the FOIA study commission. She will be appointed by Miller once Gov. Gilmore gives the legislation his expected endorsement.
The governor and legislative leaders will work together to appoint members from the general public. They will consider names submitted, among others, by media groups and the Coalition for Open Government.
The legislation establishing Virginia's new Freedom of Information Advisory Council is on line at: http://leg1.state.va.us/cgibin/legp504.exe?001+ful+SB340S1.