The ground work for an extensive study that could lead to an overhaul of Virginia's Freedom of Information law was developed in 2014 by the state's Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
The council established two subcommittees - one to study record exemptions and another to study meeting exemptions - that will meet from 2014-2016. According to a study plan presented, more records exemptions will be reviewed in 2015 and general FOIA provisions will be studied in 2016. That doesn't mean that's how the plan will look as the study moves forward.
"We're flying at 30,000 feet here. Once you look at the 45 closed meeting provisions or the other exemptions, the subcommittee might have a better idea of what to do first, second and third and what could be accomplished this year versus next year," said Del. James M. LeMunyon, vice-chair of the FOIA Council who also was the patron of the resolution that led to the study of FOIA.
The records that will be examined in work groups this year include general exclusions for public bodies, proprietary records and trade secrets, exemptions related to specific bodies and limitations on record exclusions.FOIA law governing meetings that will be examined include meetings through electronic means, closed meetings and notice of meetings. LeMunyon described the FOIA study as "zero-based FOIA, like zero-based budgeting."
"We assume it's all open, to the extent that there is an exemption, we're looking for a new justification or a rejustification," he said.
The study, which is slated to be finished by December 1, 2016, will include input from all stakeholders, ranging from local government representatives to open government groups.
Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, has taken part in two previous studies of FOIA and excited about the upcoming study. "This one, I believe, will be the most thoroughly studied ... and for once, I believe it will be a decision made by folks who understand FOIA to the highest degree," Stanley said, noting that the press association is putting all efforts into the study. "We have dozens of correspondence already from our members with suggestions, with concrete examples of why parts of FOIA do not work today."
The study will examine all 172 exemptions in FOIA, including 70 that have been added since the last review in the late 1990s. The study will also examine the organizational structure of FOIA and make recommendations to improve the readability and clarity of the law.
We need our membership's help to fix problems in the law. VPA is asking editors, publishers and most importantly, reporters who use FOIA everyday, to let us know about the problems they encounter, whether its public bodies refusing FOIA requests or illegally going into closed meetings or being shut out of court hearings.
If you want to participate in FOIA work groups with other VPA members or if you have any FOIA experiences you want to share, please contact Jeremy Slayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VPA needs your help to make changes to FOIA laws.