Your state tax money is helping to fund a tourism group in the Historic Triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
If you were so inclined, shouldn’t you be able to look at the group’s records or attend its meetings to make sure your money is being spent wisely?
Absolutely you should.
But that wasn’t clear until Attorney General Mark Herring recently issued an opinion explicitly stating that the organization is a public body under the law and should be open to public scrutiny.
An important principle thus was upheld. And organizations everywhere in Virginia were reminded of the provision in state law that if an entity is receiving tax money and was founded as an arm of government, then it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and open meetings laws.
The issue in the Triangle was clouded by the fact that this particular organization — the Tourism Council — operates under the umbrella of a private organization — the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance.
Some of those involved held that the council therefore was shielded under the privacy granted to the alliance.
Not so, said Mr. Herring.
» For one thing, the Tourism Council was not just a local group created by the alliance; it was set up by the General Assembly as a state organization, even though its purpose is to market tourism for the Triangle. Virginia’s treasury benefits, however, from the state sales tax on tourism spending and from other fees.
» Secondly, state and local tax money provide its entire support. However, an organization doesn’t have to rely entirely on tax money to be considered a public entity; the law refers to “any legislative body, authority, board, bureau, commission, district or agency of the Commonwealth … and other organizations, corporations or agencies in the Commonwealth supported wholly or principally by public funds” (emphasis added).
Those conditions make the Tourism Council a public body, regardless of its connection with the private organization.
An alliance office that performs duties for the council also would be considered part of the public body, the attorney general said.
“[T]he Tourism Council is a body created by statute to perform public functions while operating within a private non-profit corporation,” Mr. Herring said in the legal opinion.
We especially like what he said about the laws of the Code of Virginia: “The Code directs that [t]he provisions of [FOIA] shall be liberally construed to promote increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government. …”
That’s it in a nutshell. Increased public awareness of government’s activities should be government’s goal. Every opportunity should be provided to facilitate such openness. And where the Freedom of Information Act is in play, the act should be interpreted liberally — that is, openness should be government’s first impulse and final preference.
The debate over the Tourism Council’s status might have been confined to the Historic Triangle. But the principle of open government is universal and applicable to every government body throughout every corner of Virginia.