After debating the question of whether two members of the General Assembly would be allowed to have lunch together or go to the bathroom without a reporter in attendance, the state Senate today approved an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act.
As amended by the Senate the act would permit "informal" meetings of officials - such as a luncheon - to be closed to the public. It will, however, force the General Assembly to open its traditionally secret meetings of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.
A new Freedom of Information Act now has been passed by both houses of the legislature, but in somewhat different form. It is expected that a conference committee will eventually be appointed to work out the differences.
Although both supporters and opponents of the bill in the Senate spoke of the openness of their meetings and said the bill would primarily affect the House, the Senate Finance Committee also holds closed meetings and even refused last year to admit a fellow senator to one session. Even as the Senate was arguing the bill, the House Appropriations Committee was meeting in closed session.
Exempted from the so-called "sunshine" requirements of the bill by the Senate were "informal" meetings among legislators. This provision was described by different senators as the "take a reporter to lunch" or "chamberLayn Avenue" amendment. Six senators from southwest Virginia are sharing a house on Richmond's Chamberlain Avenue - an arrangement that bill opponent Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) argued would be illegal if the bill were adopted.
Andrews, gesturing to the Senate lounge, said "you wouldn't even be able to go back without (reporters)!"
Both Andrews and Sen. Herbert H. Bateman (R-Newport News) referred to a case in York County in which three members of the five-person board of Supervisors were charged with violating the Freedom of Information Act after having lunch together.
York County Attorney Cecil Moore said that the incident occurred in 1975 when three supervisors met at lunch to discuss county business. He said a citizens' association filed a complaint and a local judge ruled that the lunch meeting was a technical violation of the Freedom of Information Act. The judge told the supervisors not to hold any more such meetings. Moore sadi a planned appeal became "moot" because one supervisor was subsequently redistricted off the board, one was defeated for re-election and a third did not run.
As it now stands, the Freedom of Information Act requires that all meetings of legislative bodies, authoritise, boards, Bureaus, commissions, municipal councils, school boards, planning commission and other agencies be open to the public. The inclusion of the state legislature is new.
The Senate amemdment excludes from the requirement "informal assemblages of the constituent membership" and chance meetings between two or more officials or informal gatherings where no action on official matters is taken. Another amendment excluded the conference committies legislators hold to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill.
Bateman argued that opening committee meetings to public and the press would strifle legislators who "want to play devil's advocate or advocate new ideas. They will be reluctant to do so for fear of finding a derisive headline" (in the newspaper the next day).
Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax), a supporter of the bill, argued that "we're talking about meetings . . . I don't think the bachelors from southwest . . . would be forced to have a bunch of mindless, gutless editors coming to join them whenever they break bread."
Sen. Virgil Goode (D-Franklin) said he would vote for the bill even if it is interpreted to mean that legislators have to take a reporter along with them to a meal. "The way I read it the reporters will be able to go up to the Commonwealth Club and I'll get to find out what's going on up there." (The Commonwealth Club is an exclusive private club in Richmond).
Sen. Madison Marye (D-Montgomery) failed in his attempt to amend the act so meetings of the General Assembly committee that selects judges would be open to the public.
In other action, the Senate wrote an end to a years-long effort to resolve annexation struggles between cities and counties by agreeing to a House-passed, 10-year moratorium on annexations in the state.
Senate approval of the moratorium, 20 to 18, upset the strategy of House advocates of a complex bill that would have settled the problem by allowing counties to buy immunity from annexation by sharing revenues with the cities they surround.
When the Senate yesterday defeated that measure, 20 to 17, the House quickly responded with the proposal to extend the states six-year moratorium on annexations, assuming that would pressure senators representing cities to change their minds on the annexation bill.
However, when the moratorium came over from the House, all Northern Virginians except Sen Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandiria) voted for it and insured its passage. All of the Northern Virginia senators except Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) had supported the main annexation measure yesterday.
No effort wa made to revive the annexation bill today because its backers in the Senate were unable to change any votes.
The House today adopted a Senate-passed bill sponsored by Mitchell that will require condominium developers to post a bond to guarantee the completion of all recreation facilities and other amenities promised to condominium buyers.
The House also gave final approval late yesterday to a Senate-passed resolution expressing the intent of the Assembly that Virginia governors and attorneys general should be allowed unrestricted use of state-furnished automobiles.
The custom of furnishing a car to attorneys general for official and personal use was questioned in news stories last summer that reported personal use of a state-owned car by former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller.
State Controller Charles Walker ruled that personal use of the automobile was proper, but Miller quit using state cars for any purposes as a result of the stories. Aides said he did not want it to become an issue in the campaign he is now waging for the Democratic nomination for governor.
The Senate, having completed the work on its calender of bills and facing only the reports from conference committees Friday, adjourned at about 5:30 p.m. and decided to visit the House to "stroll around and smile at 'em," to let the House know they had finished.
A few delegates, knowing they faced a night session, muttered "show-offs" at the senators. "How many more bills you got?" Sen. J. Lewis Rawls (D-Suffolk) asked one delegate. "Have a nice evening," he said smugly when he was shown the House's lengthy agenda.
Then Majority Leader James M. thomson (D-Alexandria) welcomed the senators and mentioned a subject that occupied a great deal of interest in the State Capitol this afternoon.
"I think this is an appropriate moment to note the University of Virginia's victory over Wake Forest," he said, referring to the Virginia basketball team's stunning 59-57 upset win at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N. C. Everyone cheered.