Virginia Senate passes bill to conceal identities of correspondence contacts

The Virginia General Assembly has passed a bill that could prevent FOIA requestors from learning the identities of people who communicate with policymakers. The new exemption allows the names and contact information of anyone engaged in correspondence with a member of the governing body to be concealed, unless the correspondence relates to a “transaction of public business.” The bill also allows personal information regarding correspondence with local school boards to be exempted from FOIA requests.

Supporters of government transparency are outraged at the passage of the bill, saying it allows lawmakers to withhold more information from the public than is necessary and that it could allow for government officials to conceal the names of lobbyists. Dale Harrison, former assistant director of Elon University’s Sunshine Center in North Carolina, argues that all communication with public officials should be considered to be “public business.” Another Freedom of Information advocate, Diana Lopez of the Chicago-based Sunshine Review, argues that the assumption should be that such information is inherently public and the burden should be on the government to prove that it is not.

However, Republican Delegate Mark Cole, the bill’s sponsor, says that he intended the legislation to protect the privacy of citizens who contact the local government regarding sensitive subjects such as child support or educational issues. Cole argues that personal information should be protected due to these privacy concerns.

The bill passed in the House with a 97-1 vote earlier in February, but only passed in the Senate with a vote of 23-17. The bill is now awaiting Governor Bob McDonnell’s signature.

What do you think? Should information of those communicating with government officials automatically be exempted, or does this information inherently concern “public business,” and should therefore be available?