VACo Supports Helpful FOIA, Public Notice and Conflict of Interests Bills

February 17, 2022

FOIA

HB 444 (Bennett-Parker) FOIA; meetings conducted by electronic communication means; situations other than declared states of emergency. Sets out the parameters for public bodies to hold electronic meetings outside of the state of emergency when following the rules written in the bill.  VACo, VML, the Press Association and the Coalition for Open Government worked with the patron and supported this consensus bill. HB 444 amends existing provisions concerning electronic meetings by keeping the provisions for electronic meetings held in response to declared states of emergency, repealing the provisions that are specific to regional and state public bodies, and allowing public bodies to conduct all-virtual public meetings where all of the members who participate do so remotely and that the public may access through electronic communications means. Please contact your Senator on the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee to express your support of HB 444.

SB 152 (Locke) Definitions. This bill, which is a recommendation of the FOIA Council, defines “official government website” to be an internet site controlled by the public body and used to publish notices and other content required by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on behalf of the public body.

Public Notice

HB 167 (Ransone) Publication of notice by localities. This helpful bill provides that in any instance in which a locality has submitted a correct and timely notice request to such newspaper and the newspaper fails to publish the notice, or publishes the notice incorrectly, such locality shall be deemed to have met the appropriate notice requirements so long as the notice was published in the next available edition of a newspaper having general circulation in the locality. Please contact your Senator on the Senate Local Government Committee to express your support of HB 167.

Public Notice Provision Study

HB 1131 (Williams)SB 417 (Stanley) Virginia Code Commission; work group to review public notices required to be published by localities.  VACo supports these bills along with VML and the Virginia Press Association. Directs the Virginia Code Commission to convene a work group to review requirements throughout the Code of Virginia for localities to provide public notice for intended actions and events, including (i) the varying frequency for publishing notices in newspapers and other print media, (ii) the number of days required to elapse between the publications of notices, and (iii) the amount of information required to be contained in each notice, and make recommendations for uniformity and efficiency. The bills require the Commission to submit a report to the Chairs of the House General Laws Committee and the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee summarizing the work and submitting any recommendations of the work group by November 1, 2022.

Conflict of Interests

HB 216 (Simonds)SB 57 (Locke) State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act; definition of gift; certain tickets and registration or admission fees. Exempt from the definition of gifts tickets and registration or admission fees that are provided to a locality’s own officers or employees.

General Government Bills to Watch

HB 307 (Freitas) Virginia Freedom of Information Act; estimated charges for records. Now states that before searching for records a public body must notify the requestor in writing that there could be a cost and offer at their request to create an estimate. Currently the requestor can request an estimate.

HB 150 (March) Virginia Freedom of Information Act; local public bodies to post meeting minutes on its website. Requires localities to post minutes of its minutes on its website if they have a website within seven working days of finance approval of the minutes. If there is no website, copies must be available at a prominent location.

HB 384 (Davis) State and local employees; freedoms of conscience and expression. Protects state and local government employees of the Commonwealth, defined in the bill, from being penalized by their employer for expressing their opinion regarding a current or proposed regulation, rule, policy, position, or other action or purpose of a unit of state or local government at a hearing of a public body during the time designated for public comment when such employees are speaking on their own behalf as members of the public.

Eminent Domain Bills

SB 666 (Petersen) has some areas of concern for local governments including removing safeguard language in the existing law that prohibits a court from awarding damages for lost profits and lost access twice to same landowner, requiring a court to separate the trial over lost profits or lost access from the main condemnation trial at the request of the landowner.

SB 694 (Obenshain) requires the condemning locality to include an end-date for any temporary construction easement. That could be difficult for a locality with large projects.

Bills that didn’t Survive Crossover

Several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are no longer on the active docket. HB 599 (Roem), which would have required 8 free hours of FOIA requests per requester, per month did not make it out of a House General Laws Subcommittee.

HB 331 (Krizek), which added a requirement that a request for public records made pursuant to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act shall be made in writing and sent by the requester to the public body by registered mail, certified mail, or any other similar first-class mail tracking method used or approved by the United States Postal Service, was stricken from the docket by the patron.

HB 687 (Kory), which would have changed the definition of “meeting” for purposes of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to mean an assemblage of at least a quorum of the members of a public body. Under current law, a meeting is defined as an assemblage of as many as three members or a quorum, if less than three members of a public body. This bill was stricken from the docket.

HB 722 (Gooditis), which would allow a local public body that serves in an advisory capacity to gather through electronic communication means without a quorum of the public body physically assembled at one primary or central meeting location, did not advance from a House General Laws Subcommittee.

Conflict of Interest/Disclosure Bills No Longer on Active Docket

Disclosure bills, SB 224 (McPike) and HB 626 (Roem), required more stringent disclosures of relationships between local governing bodies and persons who may attempt to influence the governing body or government officials than currently provided in the State and Local Conflict of Interests Act. Both bills did not survive crossover and are gone for this session.

Standing Bills Gone for the Session

SB 206 (Petersen) and SB 208 (Petersen) dealt with the issue of legal standing in a lawsuit. Both would have likely increased litigation for localities.

VACo Contact: Phyllis Errico, Esq., CAE

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