Tourism Council to seek opinion from Attorney General on public body status

Staff writer

A legal opinion from the state’s Division of Legislative Services didn’t settle the question of whether the Tourism Council is a public body.

Now the question will go to the Attorney General’s office, Tourism Council board chairman and York supervisor Jeff Wassmer said during the Tourism Council’s monthly meeting Tuesday.

“There’s been a little bit of discussion about whether we’re a public or private body,” he said. “We have operated in a very transparent and open way.”

The Tourism Council had asked the Legislative Services Department to provide clarity on whether the Tourism Council is a public body, and therefore legally subject to requirements that include holding open meetings and fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests. The response the Tourism Council got Tuesday didn’t provide that clarity.

“The opinion was that on some actions we take we are private, in some actions we are public. That really doesn’t help us too much,” Wassmer said.

No discussion took place when Wassmer said the Tourism Council would now seek a legal opinion from the Attorney General. He didn’t provide a timetable on when an opinion may be rendered.

“That is the office that really makes these kind of rulings. The ruling from Legislative (Services) was a little murky, at best,” he said.

Tourism Council’s legal counsel Greg Davis echoed Wassmer’s talking points.

“The Legislative Services opined that council is not a public body but may fall into a grey area, that our meetings are private, that the marketing office would be subject to FOIA,” he said.

The Tourism Council has thus far conducted open meetings that include a public comment period. It advertises meetings online and provides access to agendas and meeting materials.

The confusion about the Tourism Council’s public-body status made its first public appearance at the Tourism Council’s March meeting. In interviews following that meeting, Tourism Council members expressed mixed opinions on whether the organization should or shouldn’t be a public body.

Virginia State Code defines a public body 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.”

The Tourism Council gets its revenue from a 1 percent surcharge to the sales tax rate in Williamsburg, James City and York, direct allocations from the localities to the alliance that will primarily end up with the Tourism Council, as well as collections from $2 transient occupancy tax. According to March projections, the Tourism Council is expected to receive $16.3 million in public money in 2019.

An open-government advocate disputed the idea the organization, given its funding sources, isn’t 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 earlier this month.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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