Bill would protect email info

Published 7:52 pm Monday, February 27, 2012

By Carten Cordell

Virginia Statehouse News

The identity of those who communicate with policymakers via email could be kept secret under new FOIA exemptions that sailed through the General Assembly on Thursday.

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House Bill 141 would shield information about anyone who contacts a public official by email unless the conversation includes mention of a public business transaction. Email records obtained under FOIA would no longer feature information identifying people who talk with local lawmakers.

People who support government transparency say the proposal provides cover for corruption, because lawmakers could redact the name of a lobbyist as easily as they could black out that of a concerned constituent.

“They are using a smokescreen to take out just about everything they can. In this case, they are whacking names,” said Dale Harrison, retired assistant director of the Sunshine Center at Elon University in North Carolina.

“When an individual contacts a public official, whether they are doing it by an open meeting or doing it by memo, they are talking about public business. This is going to make doing public business more difficult,” Harrison said.

The Elon, N.C.-center is a nonpartisan coalition that favors open access to government activity, records and meetings.

The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, said he drafted the measure to respect the privacy of his constituents.

“The impetus (of the bill) is privacy of the people that contact local government, for instance, about child support or disciplinary issues in school. Localities should have the power to redact personal information,” said Cole. “The decision about what is worthy of exemption is made by local government officials but could be challenged by a judge.”

Diana Lopez, senior editor at the Sunshine Review, a Chicago-based nonprofit transparency watchdog, said the proposal’s narrow scope of “public business” is ripe for abuse.

“This has the potential to be used in an overly broad manner,” she said. “The assumption is the information is private, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The assumption should be that information is public. It is the government’s job to prove that it is not.”

State Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Burke, said the proposal strikes the right balance between transparency and privacy, noting that FOIA still would reveal what lawmakers say in their private emails.

“I look at it as a speech issue,” he said. “I understand that it impacts transparency, but I don’t want people to be inhibited in contacting their legislator.”

The bill passed the House by a 97-1 vote earlier this month. Delegate Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, cast the lone dissenting vote.

“Having been an elected official for more than 10 years, I think it is really important that constituent conversations remain transparent,” Kory said. “Transparency and ‘sunshine’ are more important than practically anything else in government. We should not be chipping away at FOIA regulations. Businesses having conversations with lawmakers should also be accessible to people seeking info. Transparency in those interactions is key.

Lopez said that while it is common to redact government officials’ information, such as police officers’ names, for their protection, she knows of no law that removes the names of residents who contact public officials. A similar measure is being debated in Pennsylvania.

The proposal now awaits Gov. Bob McDonnell’s signature. Spokeswoman Taylor Thornley said the governor has yet to review the measure, which passed the Senate, 23-17.