Bill filed by FOIA Council vice chair would hide salaries, names of public workers

The vice chairman of the state FOIA Council has submitted a bill that would exempt from the public the names of people who earn their living from the public's pocketbook.

Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Fredericksburg) filed Senate Bill 202 on Tuesday. The new language sharply reduces the salary figures that can be made public. It goes a step further, excluding the names of "any public officer, appointee or employee" from any database of public salaries.

The bill is aimed somewhat at protecting the identity of the lowest paid public employees, but broadly expands that demographic. Existing law exempts from public disclosure the salaries of public employees who make $10,000 a year or less. Stuart's bill includes anyone who makes twice the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) or less. That means neither the salary nor name of anyone making less than $30,320 would be public.

Marisa Porto, president of the Virginia Press Association, responded on Wednesday:

"The salaries of public officials have always been public in Virginia. The only exemption has been for employees who make less than $10,000. This bill will increase that amount to slightly more than $30,000 and keep the public from knowing who gets paid what.

"A 1978 Attorney General’s opinion made it clear that a FOIA request for the salaries of public officials must include the names or it has no value to the public. Salaries are the largest expense in any government budget, and taxpayers should know who benefits from their tax dollars. At best, this bill appears to be overly broad and, at worst, it undermines the spirit of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

"It’s surprising coming from Senator Stuart, who was the chairman the state’s FOIA Council until mid 2015. I understand there has been talk about this over the years, but this has not been a topic of discussion on the council since I was appointed to it in July. It’s troubling, particularly since the Virginia FOIA Council is halfway through a three-year study to clarify and improve the law. If passed, this legislation would be devastating to the public’s right to understand how its tax dollars are spent."

Stuart could not be reached Wednesday morning. A staffer who answered his office phone said he had a family emergency.