Several critical Freedom of Information Act issues are being monitored by the FOIA Council Advisory Committee.

One of the biggest issues this year is the debate about electronic meetings, according to Bruce Potter, who is a member of the advisory committee, a former member of the Virginia Press Association Board of Directors, publisher of Inside NoVa and chief operating officer of Rappahannock Media.

Last spring, when the pandemic resulted in stay-at-home orders and shutdowns, local governments began conducting meetings electronically. Some have since returned to meeting in-person and others have switched to meeting in a hybrid format. However, some local governments are continuing to meet entirely electronically.

The FOIA Council adopted rules last year to allow electronic meetings to continue through the pandemic, as long as a state of emergency remained in force. Potter said that he is worried that some local governments may push for electronic meetings well into the future.

“It’s a transparency and access issue and it’s also a public policy issue,” Potter said.

Advocates for electronic meetings contend that it opens up access for more people to participate. People who can’t get away to drive to a meeting or those who may be caring for family members at home and aren’t able to leave the house are now able to easily dial in, watch the meeting and speak when it’s their turn to talk.

“It’s presented issues for reporters trying to cover meetings,” Potter said.

Reporters covering the meeting don’t necessarily know who is speaking when it’s done in an electronic format. During in-person meetings, a reporter can find out who the speaker is, get the correct spelling and discuss the matter in more depth.

“It’s the same thing with board members themselves,” Potter said.

If a board member makes a statement or casts a vote during an in-person meeting, the reporter is able to approach the elected official after the meeting to gather more information and gain deeper insight – something not so easily accomplished following an electronic meeting.

“It will take longer if you’re on deadline and you’re not guaranteed they will respond,” Potter said. “It’s a different atmosphere for reporters.”

Legislation is currently being considered which, if approved by legislators, would loosen state laws on electronic meetings.

Currently, members of public bodies are able to cite personal matters to attend a meeting electronically up to twice per calendar year. The proposed legislation would allow elected officials to participate electronically in up to 25 percent of meetings.

The FOIA Advisory Council voted 10-2 to support the change. Potter and Billy Coleburn, who serves as secretary of the Virginia Press Association Board of Directors and is publisher of The Courier-Record in Blackstone, both voted against the measure.

“There has to be some guardrails,” Potter said. “There’s a difference between one board member and the entire board.”

The Virginia Press Association wants to hear from reporters who have been covering virtual and hybrid meetings over the past year to hear examples of what is or isn’t working. Specific examples are needed so that we can provide that information to the advisory committee for consideration. Please send your concerns and detailed examples to Betsy Edwards at betsye@vpa.net.

(Published in Virginia’s Press Winter/Spring 2021 edition)