Morris seeks transparency

Published 10:32 am Wednesday, January 21, 2015

By Matthew Ward
Special to The Tidewater News

Del. Rick Morris, whose district includes parts of Franklin and parts of Southampton and Isle of Wight counties, has introduced several bills into the state legislature seeking to rein in state and local government.

One would make willfully and knowingly violating the Virginia Freedom of Information Act a criminal offense.

HB 2223 seeks to make such violations a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 — either or both.

Government transparency is “something that’s been valued throughout the existence of our country,” Morris said, and the act is an important tool in safeguarding it.

But, the Republican added, civil court action is currently the only recourse for citizens or organizations stymied by non-compliant agencies. The act presupposes that all records should be public, outlining certain exemptions from the requirement to disclose.

While judges can impose a civil penalty for violations of up to $2,000 — as well as forcing release of records — “the average citizen does not have the money to sue the government,” Morris said.

“Even a locality can hire a lawyer and block a citizen’s right to get that information,” he said.

Morris said agencies have ignored his FOIA requests.

“Several folks have told me about their frustration trying to get information from government agencies,” Morris said. “I would say the majority of folks working in government do the right thing. Unfortunately, there are some who don’t.”

The bill has not been scheduled for a committee vote.

Two other Morris bills, HB 1293 and HB 1294, seek to exempt churches, religious associations and religious denominations from all state and local taxes, fees and other charges, except those for which there is a direct exchange of services, such as a building permit.

Morris said several churches complained to him about a stormwater fee, meant to cover state and federal mandates to control pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, which the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors approved in 2013.

At least one church, Calvary Baptist in Smithfield, has refused to pay — the first bill came in at $1,584 — and filed suit against the county. A hearing is set for May.

Churches and other religious property are exempt from taxes under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and also the state constitution.

“We call it a tax, because a fee and a tax are both the same thing,” Calvary pastor Dan Gray said.

A spokesman for the county, Donald Robertson, declined to comment on a matter before the court.

The city of Suffolk created a stormwater utility fee in 2006, according to city spokesman Tim Kelley. The charge is $6 per month per Equivalent Residential Unit, he stated, and it applies to all residential and commercial property, churches and other nonprofits.

“For the purposes of what it’s being charged for, I would say no,” Morris said, when asked whether that fee is constitutional. “There is no direct service being received,” he added.

“If you want to charge these fees, change the Constitution,” Morris said. “I’m a firm believer in going by the Constitution.”

Morris’ 13 bills also include one, HB 1383, that would give appointing bodies the power to fire the officials they appoint, such as members of planning commissions. “Currently it takes a judge to get an appointee removed,” Morris said.

Of significance for recreational boaters, HB 1298 would prevent law enforcement from stopping, boarding or inspecting a noncommercial vessel on commonwealth waters without probable cause.

According to Morris, who described it as another measure to bring the behavior of government agencies into line with the Constitution, people should enjoy the same rights in their boat as they do driving in their car.