Attorney General's office hasn't yet weighed in on whether Tourism Council is public body

The attorney general has yet to weigh in on whether the Tourism Council is a public body, and as such subject to open meeting requirements and fulfillment of information requests by the public.

Tourism Council chairman Jeff Wassmer provided a brief update during the group’s monthly meeting Tuesday.

Wassmer said Sen. Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment’s office has sent a letter inquiring about the Tourism Council’s status to the attorney general’s office. A legal opinion is anticipated in a matter of weeks.

Norment sponsored the legislation that created the Tourism Council.

“He’s in a better position to ask the attorney general,” Wassmer said after the meeting, adding that since the inquiry comes on Norment’s letterhead, it might expedite the process.

The Tourism Council discussed its intention to inquire about its status to the attorney general at its meeting April 16. The council has been caught in a period of uncertainty as it tries to figure out whether the body, which is funded entirely through public money, is considered a public body under state code.

That there was a question regarding the group’s public-body status first was broached publicly during a discussion about bylaws at the group’s meeting in March.

The Tourism Council’s legal counsel has said it’s his understanding that the legislative intent for the bill that created the Tourism Council was it would not be considered a public body.

The council’s membership has expressed split opinions about its status and petitioned the state’s Division of Legislative Services to provide guidance.

The Division of Legislative Services provides legal resources to lawmakers in the General Assembly.

The Division of Legislative Services delivered an opinion that put the Tourism Council in a gray area — not subject to open meeting requirements but subject to Freedom of Information Act requests made of its marketing office, the attached Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance staffers who enact the Tourism Council’s directives. The council is part of the alliance.

Unhappy with the ambiguity, the Tourism Council approached the attorney general for a potentially clearer opinion.

A public body is defined in the state code as “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.”

An open-government advocate and the executive director of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a sub-unit of the Division of Legislative Services, cited the Tourism Council’s funding source as the reason it should be considered a public body.

“Ultimately, it is a legal interpretation. But the way it reads in the statute, it looks to be a public body,” Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government told the Gazette in April.

A 2017 legal opinion by the Freedom of Information Advisory Council found the alliance was a public body due to its funding coming primarily from budget allocations from the Historic Triangle localities.

The Tourism Council’s revenue comes from a 1% surcharge to the sales tax rate in Williamsburg, James City and York, direct allocations from the localities to the alliance and collections from $2 transient occupancy tax. Projections made in March anticipate the Tourism Council will receive $16.3 million in public money in 2019.

So far, the Tourism Council has been transparent in its operation, holding open meetings that include a public comment period and providing access to agendas and meeting materials online.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, [email protected], @jajacobs_