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Monday, May 27, 2024

AG says Tourism Council is a public body — subject to FOIA, disclosure statements and more

The former Binns of Williamsburg location, at 435 W. Duke of Gloucester St., sits empty in Merchants Square Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
The Tourism Council is using taxpayer dollars to create marketing campaigns and strategies to increase overnight visitation to the Williamsburg area. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

The Virginia Attorney General has released an official advisory opinion determining a newly-created body tasked with determining the use of millions of taxpayer dollars — the Tourism Council — is public.

As a public body fueled by tourism tax dollars, the Tourism Council will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and will be required to be held to a certain level of transparency, according to an Aug. 16 letter written by Attorney General Mark Herring.

“… [I]t is my opinion that the Tourism Council functions as a board of the Commonwealth within the definition of ‘public body’ under FOIA,” Herring wrote in the seven-page letter.

The body, with the oversight of newly-appointed Tourism Council Executive Director and CEO Victoria Cimino, will allocate dollars to marketing and other strategies to boost tourism in Greater Williamsburg. 

The Tourism Council was organized after Senate Bill 942 went into effect July 1, 2018, which also prompted the reorganization of Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance.

The reorganization created both the Tourism Council and Business Council, two new arms of the chamber.

SB 942 established a 1-percent sales tax for the Historic Triangle; half of that revenue would go back to the area localities and the other half would go into the Historic Triangle Marketing Fund, which is where the Tourism Council receives its marketing funding.

SB 942 also sets aside tax revenue generated by the $2 room tax from hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts.

Herring’s opinion was issued in response to a request by Sen. Thomas K. Norment, the state lawmaker who introduced SB 942 and who represents parts of the Historic Triangle.

Norment asked whether the Tourism Council was subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the Virginia Public Procurement Act and several other acts, all of which relate to transparency as a public body. 

One of those acts includes the Virginia State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act, which requires members of public bodies to file disclosure statements of the personal interests upon election, reelection, employment, appointment or reappointment. 

RELATED STORY: If an elected official’s disclosure statement is wrong, who monitors it?

Herring’s opinion acknowledges one of the key issues surrounding the debate whether the Tourism Council is a public body: the council is housed under the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, which is a private nonprofit organization. 

Despite the question, Herring said he believes the council is a public body subject to FOIA. He also said the Tourism Council meets the definition of public body under — and therefore is subject to — the Virginia Public Procurement Act, Virginia State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act, Virginia Investment of Public Funds Act, Virginia Security for Public Deposits Act and Virginia Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act.

View the full attorney general’s opinion on the Office of the Attorney General website.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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