Sunshine Report for April 2019

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
April 2019
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A red herring?
Arlington officials continued to maintain that its agreement with Amazon to notify the company within two days of receiving a FOIA request was no different from agreements with other businesses and called opposition to the provision "a bit of a red herring." 

VCOG's Megan Rhyne compared past agreements to the Amazon agreement and found some noticeable differences.

Meanwhile, ARLnow confirmed that the county would be forwarding FOIA requests directly to Amazon -- with requester names intact. And the Washington Business Journal noticed -- after asking for a permit on a building Amazon is expected to lease -- that the county was considering ending same-day viewing of building permits and site plans in favor of requiring FOIA requests.
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The Pulaski County administrator and a member of the board of supervisors engaged in a bit of political theater to highlight that a single citizen was responsible for making 38% of the FOIA requests to the county over a 9-year period. The citizen owed back taxes, too, the pair noted, though another supervisor pointed out that past-due taxes do not disqualify a citizen from asking for records.

VCOG's Megan Rhyne blogged on the incident, taking particular issue with the administrator's comment that it had "wasted . . . 2.5 months of staff time" responding to the citizen's requests.
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Open government
in the news
Charlottesville held public interviews of its three finalists for the city manager position. 

The Norfolk school board has held four meetings in the past six months without giving public notice. The board is suffering from internal strife, too, as three members called a special meeting to discuss their concerns about the board's practices. That meeting was not live streamed, as other meetings are, because the board chair ordered the feed cut.

A federal trial judge in Harrisonburg ruled that Virginia's FOIA exemptions for meetings do not create an independent attorney-client privilege. Read the opinion on VCOG's website.

Richmond Public Schools finally released its budget, days after the superintendent said the it could be withheld under FOIA's personnel records exemption. Despite heavy criticism, including from school board members, the superintendent said it was the humane thing to do since the budget would reveal which jobs were going to be cut. 

Citizens who logged in to view video of Charlottesville City Council meetings were greeted instead by a short anti-abortion film.

An alert citizen watching a Danville City Council meeting on her iPhone was the one who called city officials' attention to the fact that a vote the council took to establish the Danville Neighborhood Development Corporation had been taken without the requisite public hearing advertised in the local paper. The city corrected its mistake and revoted a month later after proper notice.

In January, a member of the Vienna Town Council issued a press release calling for a ban on private meetings between council members and developers who would be submitting applications for a special zoning plan. The town council's attorney confirmed in March that while members may choose not to meet with developers, the council cannot ban such meetings without running afoul of the First Amendment.

As reported by the Register & Bee, a year after receiving public records requests and scrutiny, the Pittsylvania County Social Services Board is in talks with the county about receiving county official email addresses for its board members to better respond to open records requests. 

The trial of a 14-year-old boy charged with voluntary manslaughter in the death of a 12-year-old may be open to the media, a judge with the Portsmouth Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court ruled in mid-March. The request, which was made by The Virginian-Pilot, was opposed by prosecutors but not by the defense.

Shortly before the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority filed a $17.6 million lawsuit against the EDA's former director and various businesses, in response to a FOIA request by The Northern Virginia Daily, the EDA's interim executive director confirmed that there was no contract supporting the $540,269 the EDA paid towards the now-canceled Skyline Criminal Justice Academy. Meanwhile, a county circuit court judge impaneled a special grand jury to investigate possible criminal activity

Though Henrico and Chesterfield Counties both quickly handed over records to WTVR on how much money employees make in overtime, Richmond refused to provide such data.

The Norfolk Police Department refused a request for records of use-of-force incidents from the past decade, citing the exemption for "administrative investigations relating to allegations of wrongdoing by employees of a law-enforcement agency."

The abrupt departure of Portsmouth's police chief, the first black female to lead a municipal police department in Virginia, was met with public silence by city council members. At a public meeting, members did not respond to the comments and complaints made during the public comment period, but instead went into closed session to discuss the matter. Later, the city's video of the meeting edited out the comments of one particularly vocal critic. The city said the man used language that could get the city in trouble with the FCC.

The Charlottesville Police Department is adding more information about people who are arrested to a recently unveiled open data system.

The FOIA Council has issued two opinions this month: One on the interaction of FOIA and other code provisions when it comes to access at a public hospital to your own medical records, and one on how two public bodies might meet to mediate a dispute. Read them on VCOG's website

The Supreme Court of Virginia recently accepted two FOIA-related cases
  • Transparent GMU v. George Mason University: the court accepted 4 points of error having to do with the interrelationship of GMU and its foundations for purposes of FOIA requests.
  • Batterson v. Voorhees: the court accepted for review a question about not awarding attorney fees in a FOIA case, but Batterson's attorney is asking the court to reconsider taking two more questions, one having to do with the delayed assertion of exemptions and the other having to do with giving the requester a privilege log when submitting records under seal to a judge.

The Petersburg City Council named a new FOIA officer after it learned the newly hired city attorney was rejecting FOIA requests, saying the city attorney's office had a possible conflict of interest. “Typically an attorney (and his staff) representing a locality cannot serve in this role as most (if not all) of the records over which we have control are excluded from requirements of production as work product or attorney-client privileged information,” the attorney wrote in an email to a local requester.

A roundtable discussion between the governor and African-American leaders in Danville was billed as being closed to the press, though the Register & Bee was eventually allowed in.

For years, Fairfax County Public Schools reported to the federal government that no students were physically restrained or trapped in an isolating space, but records obtained by WAMU revealed hundreds of cases where children were restrained or put in seclusion. When asked about the discrepancy, Fairfax school officials said there was no requirement for the district to report the data to the state.

Fairfax County received 8,469 FOIA requests — an average of 34 requests per working day -- during 2018. The county has implemented a custom-made, centralized tracking application, which officials credit for reducing response times to an average of three working days.

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We've raised $8,530 towards our $10,000 goal.

Push us over the top!


You can still register for tickets through Monday, and we welcome donors and sponsors through the end of the month.

Go to VCOG's website to see the line-up of panels, a link to panelist bios and photos, and a list of our fabulous supporters!

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The real FOIA heroes are citizens

VCOG's Megan Rhyne writes that every day, Virginians use FOIA to uncover important information that benefits their fellow citizens.

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VCOG launches FOI Slack channel

VCOG has rolled out a Slack channel for Virginia FOIA. Read our guidelines and join. Share your FOIA requests or discuss such topics as open meetings, fees, enforcement and datasets.

Click here to read our guidelines and join our Slack channel.

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Supplies list

You know what's as valuable as your membership dues and donations? Office supplies! We've created a list of everyday office supplies (and a few wish-list items) on Amazon Smile. Next time you're shopping on, find VCOG's "charity list" and keep us rolling in paper and ink (and stamps, and file folders, and...).

Click here to select VCOG as your AmazonSmile charity.
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VCOG is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. TIN 54-1810687
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