Morris to push for transparency

Published 1:16 pm Wednesday, December 23, 2015

By Diana McFarland

News editor

Del. Rick Morris, R-64th is pursuing open and transparent government with a series of bills to go before the upcoming General Assembly.

Morris reintroduced a bill that would make willfully withholding information from the public by government officials a misdemeanor.

HB 61would add a greater penalty than civil enforcement of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The bill currently calls for charging a government official with a Class 1 misdemeanor if it can be proved that the individual deliberately, willfully and knowingly violates certain FOIA provisions without legal justifications.

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The bill passed the House last year 99-1 but was killed in a Senate laws committee. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Morris said there’s a change coming to the bill that would lower the penalty and make it kick in after a second response is ignored. A Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail, a fine or both.

Morris said he’s had many people tell him of submitting requests for information to government officials and not getting a response — and that includes himself.

In some cases, Morris submitted requests using his official House of Delegates stationary and even that didn’t invoke a response.

“It’s important to have an open and transparent government that is actually open and transparent to the people. There are too many instances of government agencies and officials ignoring a FOIA request because there’s no ramifications,” Morris said.

“There’s a need to put some teeth to this,” he said.

Currently, the only recourse an individual has to compel an official to release information is to file a civil suit — a process that can become costly.

Morris also plans to submit a bill that would require closed sessions to be recorded, and once the government body returns to the public arena, it must record the reason why the topic is now subject to FOIA. Morris gives an example of a contract discussed in closed session. Once the contract is signed, it is no longer protected and should become public information, Morris said.

“It keeps checks and balances,” he said.

The third bill deals with the use of private email. The bill would require government officials to send any emails containing public business but using a private account to be forwarded to the appropriately designated person with the locality to be stored and archived. 

The 2016 session of the General Assembly begins Jan. 13.{/mprestriction}



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