|Tuesday, February 10, 2004
House votes to exempt Assembly from FOI act
By Michael Sluss
RICHMOND - A sharply divided House of Delegates passed legislation Monday that would exempt the General Assembly from the state's open meetings laws and allow senior members to set ground rules for public access to legislative business.
After a second round of spirited debate, the House voted 52-48 to pass the bill (HB 1357) sponsored by House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem. But five Republicans who supported the bill on a preliminary vote Friday voted against final passage Monday.
"I think we are making a mistake," said Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, one of the GOP legislators who changed his mind and voted against the bill.
Griffith said the measure is designed to remove a cloud of uncertainty that exposed lawmakers to inadvertent violations of the Freedom of Information Act. In a recent advisory opinion, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore affirmed that any gathering of three or more lawmakers must be opened to the public if they discuss pending legislative business. But Kilgore also acknowledged that many informal gatherings "fall into a gray area."
Griffith wants to exempt the General Assembly from the open meetings law to enable legislators to meet informally without having to worry about possible violations of the law. He said lawmakers should establish guidelines for open meetings before having rules imposed on them by the courts.
Griffith insisted he has no desire to curb public access to legislative meetings.
"I assure you we will keep the meetings open and operate in the sunshine," said Griffith, whose bill still needs the approval of the Senate and Gov. Mark Warner to become law.
But opponents of the measure warned that future legislatures may use Griffith's legislation as a license to shield the public from their deliberations.
"This bill is an unprecedented assault on what should be a bedrock principle of government -that we do the public's business in the open," said Del. Bob Brink, D-Arlington.
Nutter, who rarely engages in House floor debates, apologized to Griffith as he began to explain his opposition to the bill.
"I've seen the Freedom of Information Act at work," said Nutter, who served as one of Virginia Tech's top spokesmen before getting elected to the House in 2001. "I think it keeps us honest. I came here with a pretty healthy disregard and concern about the powers of government. Nothing I've seen here in my three years so far has convinced me otherwise."
Ironically, freshman Del. Onzlee Ware of Roanoke was one of only two Democrats who voted for Griffith's bill. Ware succeeded Roanoke Democrat Clifton "Chip" Woodrum, who started the chain of events that drove Griffith to draft the legislation.
Woodrum, regarded as a leader on open government issues, asked Kilgore last July to determine whether the legislature's partisan caucuses violated the Freedom of Information Act by meeting behind closed doors. Kilgore said the caucuses are not bound to comply with the act because they are not "public bodies," but indicated that those and other unofficial legislative gatherings must be opened if members discuss pending business.
Ware said the open meetings law lacks clarity. He said he became concerned about the issue during his freshman orientation, when he was told that legislators could easily violate the law by discussing business when gathered in small groups.
"The way it seems to me now, the rules [on meetings] are decided on a case-by-case basis," Ware said. "That doesn't seem to me to be the most effective way to run a legislature."
The Joint Rules Committee, a panel made up of senior lawmakers, would set guidelines for public access if Griffith's bill becomes law. Del. Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, said legislators should have that authority.
"We don't want the press making our rules," Wardrup said. "We don't want the governor making our rules. We don't want the courts making our rules. We want to make our own rules."