2010 FOI awards recognize Axton citizen,
Norfolk reporter, and the Richmond School Board
Virginia Coalition for Open Government to present
annual awards at Richmond conference, Oct. 21-22
Nancy Barbour Smith of Axton is this year’s winner of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s Laurence E. Richardson award for individual citizen contributions to open government. The award honors the memory of a longtime Charlottesville broadcaster and VCOG founding director and will be presented Thursday, Oct. 21, at VCOG’s annual board dinner and conference at the Commonwealth Park Suites Hotel in Richmond.
Spurred by her opposition to a proposed "mega" industrial park in the Pittsylvania County, Smith pushed the board of supervisors, and later the county administrators, to make board meeting packets available to the public, and eventually distributed in libraries. Any time a record or report was handed out during a meeting, Smith would obtain the records through FOIA and distribute them to the public.
She eventually sued the BOS for numerous FOIA meetings violations and won. The judge said the county was going into closed meetings without stating the subject or the purpose of the meeting, both of which are required under FOIA. The judge ordered the county to comply with FOIA in the future and awarded Smith more than $6,000 in attorneys' fees.
VCOG’s 2010 award for media will go to Steven Vegh, a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Vegh used FOIA to uncover numerous problems in the way Norfolk administered the state SOL tests. The revelations, including that teachers were punished for complaining, led to: (1) the appointment of an independent panel to further investigate; (2) the layoff of the administrator who denied the FOIA requests; (3) the resignation of the superintendent; and (4) the replacement of the school board chair. Along the way, Norfolk ignored FOIA deadlines, imposed arbitrary processing requirements and stopped giving out meeting materials in advance of the meeting. The Pilot went to court over access to some records; a judge in late July determined that the exemptions the school district cited weren’t valid, though the case is still under advisement.
The Richmond School Board will receive this year’s government award. Since the formation of the board’s governance team in January 2009, the board has taken a number of steps to increase transparency and citizen participation, including:
- posting the School Board's draft agenda a week to 10 days prior to the meeting;
- changing meeting times to make it more convenient for the public to attend;
- relaxing the policies for public comment so that those who want to speak to the board are not required to sign up in advance or to limit their comments to an item on the agenda;
- streamlining and publicizing FOIA processes and fee; and
regularly reporting to the full board how FOIA requests and responses have been handled.
VCOG will hold a one-day conference on access issues the following day, Oct. 22, at the Virginia State Capitol.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government is a nonprofit alliance formed to promote expanded access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level. For more information about the award winners, the conference, or the coalition, please contact Megan Rhyne at