Sunshine Report for April 2015

The Sunshine Report: Online Transparency news from the Virginia Coalition
for Open Government   April 2015


Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

Dear Friends - 

It’s no April Fool’s joke. There really are more open government news stories than usual in this edition of the Sunshine Report Online. Some of those can be attributed to the extra coverage media outlets around the state gave to open government for Sunshine Week, which ran March 15 through the 21st.

But not all.

Spring arrived in Virginia on a rainy and snowy day, followed by gloriously warm, sunny days. It was a fitting metaphor for March, where dreary stories of lawsuits, restrictive public comment periods and questionable redactions were countered by government/community collaborations, greater access to birth certificates and a decision to strike down a gag order.

I guess every month is like that. I tend to hear the horror stories from citizens and reporters who have been denied records or who have questioned meeting practices. Rarely do they call me up to say how quickly someone responded to a request. The stories are out there, and it’s important that I highlight both.

When you see a story you think VCOG may be interested in, feel free to forward it to

And for a daily dose of access-related stories and opinion, sign up for VCOG’s free newsletter.

Happy Spring to all!
Megan Rhyne
VCOG Executive Director


VCOG on the road

In March, VCOG's Megan Rhyne was a panelist at the National FOI Day, March 13, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. She also taught a six-hour course on FOIA at the Christopher Wren Association at William & Mary.

In April, Rhyne will conduct FOIA training with the Town of Waverly. The VCOG spring board meeting is April 23 in Glen Allen

FOIA violation's silver lining

The Town of Waverly found itself on the losing end of a FOIA lawsuit brought by a local citizen. C. Taylor Everett’s requests for records were ignored and he was not given notice of upcoming meetings despite having asked to be notified regularly as FOIA contemplates.

In addition to ordering the town to pay roughly $7,000 in Everett’s legal fees and costs, Sussex County Circuit Court Chief Judge W. Allan Sharrett found Mayor Barbara Gray and Town Clerk Taneka Womble had knowingly violated FOIA and imposed penalties of $1,000 on each of them.

The imposition of penalties in FOIA cases is rare in Virginia. Sharrett’s order was also notable, though, for its suspension of the penalties provided that the town respond properly to FOIA requests for the next two years.

Gray accepted an offer by VCOG’s Megan Rhyne to learn more about FOIA. She and Rhyne have plans to meet in mid-April.

The Clinton email "gift"

VCOG and other state open government coalitions work hard to remain non-partisan and to not involve themselves in campaigns.

But the access community may want to send Hillary Rodham Clinton a thank you card for shining a bright, bright light on the use of private email by public officials, which usually allows them to conduct public business out of the public’s sight.

The New York Times broke the story revealing that while she was Secretary of State Clinton used a private domain name and server at her New York home to conduct official business. Clinton defended the move on the grounds that it wasn’t convenient to carry two phones (a work one and a private one) and that important records would have been retained by the co-workers she sent her messages to. Archivists openly worried about what messages of historical importance had been lost, and also fretted that the printed emails Clinton provided would be much more difficult to archive than the original emails would have been.

Though the political fallout for Clinton may be ongoing, enterprising reporters in Virginia took pains to find out whether Virginia’s FOIA law would allow the use of non-government email addresses (it does), whether local officials use their own accounts (they do)  and whether it is a good idea for them to have unilateral control over their email management (it’s not).

Interviewed for many of these stories, VCOG’s Megan Rhyne urged local governments and state agencies to develop policies for the use and management of records exchanged over non-governmental email accounts. Better yet, she urged them to stick with government accounts, which go through central servers and are backed up and archived.

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Sunshine Week 2015

Sunshine Week celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. What started out in Florida as Sunshine Sunday, a day to highlight the impact of public records and meetings on citizens’ lives, evolved into a nationwide effort called Sunshine Week.

At National FOI Day, panelists (including Megan Rhyne) reflected on where Sunshine Week has taken us and where it is going. Sunshine Week coordinator Deb Gersh Hernandez spotlighted some of the more creative ways Sunshine Week has been celebrated, including the introduction of a Sunshine Wheat craft beer, a photo exhibit of redacted documents, a sermon, a real-time public records audit, and VCOG’s musical playlist of sunshine-themed songs.

You can watch a video of the panel here.

As usual, news media outlets around the state carried a host of stories, some about the Freedom of Information Act itself, and some that were made possible through records obtained by FOIA.

Megan Rhyne taught the first of three two-hour classes at the Christopher Wren Association at William & Mary. She also participated in a happy hour with members of Transparency Virginia, and she wrote an op-ed on the unworkable working papers exemption that was picked up by a number of papers. Read it here.

For a sampling of Sunshine Week stories run around the state, click here.


Open government in the news

Auditor of Public Accounts Martha Mavredes admitted her office did not have a comprehensive list of supervisory entities created by local governments, making it impossible for the office to monitor the entities’ financial transactions. An audit by Mavredes found the General Assembly has not done anything to demand audit reports from the entities.

In the first full year of a partnership between the Department of Motor Vehicles and  Virginia’s Office of Vital Records, more than 100,000 requests for birth certificates were handled at DMV offices around the state. Such requests used to be handled solely by the Vital Records office in Richmond.

A Dumfries town councilman faced criticism from fellow members when he displayed a campaign sticker during a town meeting. The councilman, who is running for a seat on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, positioned the sticker so that it could be seen on the town’s televised meeting feed.

The Joint Land Use Study of the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren suggested ways it can keep the public and the King George County local government informed and engaged about new projects and plans.

After first refusing a FOIA request for the amount being paid to its departing CEO, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority finally disclosed that Adrienne Goolsby would receive a severance package of more than $154,000.

A Virginia Supreme Court study panel recommended allowing defense attorneys to routinely examine police reports, including witness interviews, in criminal cases. Discovery of those reports could be limited by withholding, redacting or restricting disclosure of witness statements for good cause, the panel said. Citizens would not have a right to view any of the records.

Chesterfield Public Schools was taken to task for shoddy record keeping of construction projects. One official said it was hard to keep the books straight when the public (namely citizens Brenda Stewart and Steve Elswick) kept asking to see them. Andy Hawkins, the school system’s assistant superintendent for business and finance, called the pair “two malcontents who are going to be upset about everything.”

A FOIA request for texts sent and received by James City County supervisors led to the disclosure that the county does not retain them. Instead, the county provided text logs, showing only the date and time each message was received and the numbers they were sent to or received from. Supervisors later said most of the texts on their county-issued were personal and usually between themselves and family members.

The Halifax County School Board appointed a local man to serve as parliamentarian to run their regular board meetings, but not their special meetings or work sessions.

Citing the impaired First Amendment right of new media to gather news, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond invalidated a gag order and sealing order that had been entered in the trial against the former CEO of Massey Energy Co. related to a 2010 mine explosion.

Just how many of the 1,919 bills and 857 resolutions did the members of the Virginia General Assembly read? In a review of local legislators, the Star-Exponent found they differ in how they approach the load, but most at least skip bills that die in committees the lawmakers do not sit on.

A review of ABC records obtained by FOIA revealed that more citations are issued to buyers of alcohol than to sellers.

The public comment period during Franklin County Public Schools is so strict that citizens cannot mention any official or employee by name or even by position.

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors was back in the open government next last week when it approved a substantial tuition increase without posting the proposal online for the public to read or comment on. Though the move did not violate any FOIA rules, Helen Dragas, the former rector and former target of anti-transparency criticism said some board members were not informed of the plan and students were not allowed to give feedback.

Fairfax County Schools took the position that it could redact family members’ namesfrom school officials’ financial disclosure forms. Local delegate Randy Minchew, who chaired the House of Delegates panel that worked on this year’s ethics reform package, said he did not believe the redactions were authorized by FOIA

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund dropped Virginia’s grade from a B+ to a B- in its annual review of state spending transparency. To bolster its grade, “Virginia would need to expand its disclosures about such economic development programs and allow for bulk downloads for all data” the report said.

Altavista officials refused to explain the recent absence of the town’s police chief. The town manager said he could not discuss the matter because of “personnel” issues that could be exempt from FOIA. He also declined to say who was managing the day-to-day operations of the police department.

A Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled that certain associations representing educators and schools boards could not intervene in a case where a parent is seeking evaluation data for individual teachers. The Virginia Department of Education is appealing a trial court’s ruling that it must turn over the data.

The Town of Purcellville is considering making permanent a policy that would bar citizens from attending public meetings from six months to a year if they have been kicked out of prior meetings for violating town meeting rules, which include applauding or voicing support/opposition. (VCOG wrote a letter to the town mayor asking that the policy be shelved.) (no story link)