By Ryan Persaud
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Bringing government further into the digital age, the General Assembly has given final approval to two bills that aim to modernize how members of city councils, school boards and other public bodies can attend and hold meetings using electronic technologies.
HB 906 and HB 908 would make it easier for public officials and citizens to attend meetings remotely and restrict public officials from texting each other during meetings. Both bills were introduced by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and would amend Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which ensures that citizens have access to public records upon request and the right to attend public government meetings.
On Thursday, the Senate joined the House in unanimously passing the two bills. They now go to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.
The measures were recommended by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a state agency that resolves FOIA disputes. The council consulted the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that works to improve public access to government records and meetings. The coalition’s executive director, Megan Rhyne, said her group didn’t have any objections to the legislation.
HB 908 would remove a requirement for public officials attending a meeting remotely to have that remote area be open to the public. This would allow officials to call in from their home or a hotel room without making that area open to the public.
Alan Gernhardt, the executive director and senior attorney at the Virginia FOIA Council, said the current law dates back before people had cellphones and had to call in remotely from places such as community colleges and conference rooms.
“Of course, today, everyone’s got a cellphone,” Gernhardt said. “People can literally call in from anywhere. It just doesn’t make sense to require those to be open to the public in the same way, as if you were at a conference facility or something.”
To ensure transparency, however, the bill states that members of the public must have access to a “substantially equivalent” electronic means to witness the meeting.
“I think that [HB] 908 was trying to strike a balance between members of a public body using technology to participate as a member, but also preserving public right of access to meetings that may not all be in one place,” Rhyne said.
Gernhardt said the bill will enable people who can’t otherwise attend a public meeting to keep track of the meeting on their cellphone or computer.
“Especially for some people who are at work or are watching their kids and they can’t physically come to Richmond,” Gernhardt said, “this gives them a little more chance to actually observe and witness the operation of government, and that is extending the purpose of FOIA.”
HB 906 clarifies the definition of electronic communication in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
Gernhardt said that previously, the definition didn’t cover methods of communication such as text messages, and that started to create problems at public meetings.
“They had a public meeting going on, but people were text messaging each other,” Gernhardt said. “And we said ‘Wait a second. Isn’t that kind of like having an electronic meeting within a regular meeting?’ It made everyone uncomfortable, at the very least.”
Rhyne said that in addition to supporting these pieces of legislation, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government also supports upcoming bills such as SB 336, which requires every elected public body to allow the opportunity for public comment during any open meeting.