Sunshine Report for April 2020

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
April 2020
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VCOG & Coronavirus
Dear VCOG friend and supporter:

First and foremost: I am hopeful that this letter finds you safe and healthy. Everyone's prime objective at this time should be to care for the physical well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.

Personally, I battled a bronchial infection shortly before things melted down, and I now have a newly minted teenager home from school for the duration of the academic year. (Yay?) My husband is in a service-based business. He faces an uncertain future, as do close friends whose businesses have been severely compromised by the governor's directives.

Everyone is struggling, and my heart goes out to the most vulnerable among us.

At VCOG, the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was the postponement of our annual conference. We've rescheduled to May 21, still in Harrisonburg, but there's certainly a chance we will have to reschedule again. Most of our donors and sponsors graciously agreed to let us carry over their donations, but income we would have brought in from registrations has dried up.

Our endowment -- which provides fully one-third of our annual operating budget -- has absorbed a heavy blow, losing more than 15% of its value since the beginning of this fiscal year and dropping us back to a balance we passed way back in October 2016.

But we're still getting work done. . . . 

...continue reading on VCOG's website.
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Public meetings & Coronavirus
The day after the governor declared a state of emergency to deal with the Coronavirus, VCOG posted to its daily newsletter the rules already in place to allow public bodies to meet electronically without a physical quorum in one place. A meeting under this section allows for an all-electronic meeting to discuss the declared state of emergency, but nothing else. That left public bodies in a bind for dealing with many important issues -- most notably the public hearing for and adoption of the annual budget -- that weren't directly related to the virus emergency. Nor did the rules contemplate the eventual health directives to limit gatherings to a maximum of 10 people, which is less than the size of a quorum for many state and regional bodies, and which is more than the size of many local bodies when staff is included.

As public bodies scrambled to adapt, VCOG asked the public to grant government flexibility during this unprecedented time, but it also urged public bodies -- no matter what choices they made -- to keep basic elements of public access, notice and minutes front and center.

The Attorney General provided some guidance for how public bodies should proceed in an opinion issued March 20. In it, he said that what constituted business about the virus emergency was not so narrow as to exclude matters that could cause the public "irrevocable harm" if not taken up. That gave public bodies a little wiggle room.

The AG's opinion also said, though, that the statute allowing for the governor's declaration was not a carte blanche to ignore any state law.laws. Though some latitude is built in to the statute for "time-consuming procedures and formalities," the AG said . . .

.....continue reading on VCOG's website.
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Open government
in the news
A Rappahannock County judge ruled the board of supervisors there improperly closed a meeting to talk about an advertisement seeking a replacement for an outgoing county attorney as well as alternatives to the county attorney set-up. The topic was not "legal advice," nor did it fall under the personnel exemption for "prospective candidates for employment." The exemption is for "specific candidates," the judge wrote, not candidates in general. Further, even though the board did not vote on these criteria, "a tacit grant of permission to allow the criteria of the job to be established by the staff" was taken in closed session. 

A Fauquier County judge turned back a petition by The Washington Post to open future proceedings in the case of a Faquier teenager charged with the murder of his mother and brother. Though the defendant will be tried as an adult, the judge said there was still historical and statutory protection for juvenile defendants. The judge ordered a court reporter to be present in the future, though, to create a transcript of the proceedings.

The Legal Aid Justice Center and the University of Virginia School of Law's Immigration Clinic filed a FOIA case against the Rockingham County Sheriff's office for its failure to disclose records related to the sheriff's collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The suit alleges the sheriff did not cite an exemption for why some records were not provided.

When a subcommittee of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors scheduled its required public comment period in consideration of a proposal to raise tuition, it said members of the public who wanted to speak during the hour-long period to sign up seven days in advance, prompting an advocate for college affordability to call the move "an unnecessary barrier" to public comment.

Virginia Commonwealth University police investigated allegations that members of the student government removed stacks of The Commonwealth Times, the student newspaper, apparently in response to a front-page article about conflict within the Student Government Association.

Smyth County joined the ranks of localities around the state and country who are encrypting their police scanner signal. Local fire and EMS services were left on a public feed, though a spokesperson said those signals could be encrypted in the future.

While the Virginia House and Senate courts committees publicly interviewed all candidates for vacant judgeships, the same could not be said for the commerce committees, both of which publicly interviewed just two of the six candidates. The remaining four were met with privately.

When the Virginia House and Senate have agreed to different versions of the same bill, the bills are sent to a committee of conference to work out the differences. These committees, in practice, do not actually meet as a group. Instead, compromise drafts are circulated, and conferees huddle in hallways and offices. This year, nearly 100 pieces of legislation were sent to conference.

Danville officials met in closed session with representatives from a casino company hoping to open the first casino in the area, as part of legislation allowing casinos in five economically distressed cities in the state. A work session was scheduled for March 31, and again the discussion was slated for a closed session. The meeting appears to have been canceled, though, in light of the state of emergency

The Virginia Beach City Council considered whether or not to turn its convention bureau into a nonprofit to give it more flexibility with procurement, compensation, hiring and firing (and presumably FOIA).

The Winchester City Council again considered a proposal -- for the third time since June 2017 -- to prohibit council members from discussing personnel issues with "any person or entity, media, or agency representative" unless authorized by formal action or consensus of the council. Anyone found in violation could be censured, but it would not affect the member's ability to participate in or vote at meetings.

The new communications and community outreach coordinator hired by the Martinsville school system is the son of one school board member and the stepson-in-law of another. Neither board member voted on the appointment, and the superintendent asserted that everything about the hire was done properly. Nonetheless, when a Martinsville Bulletin reporter asked to see the certification the two board members signed to state that they'd had no involvement in the hiring process, he was told that the "requested documentation does not exist."

According to records acquired by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney spent approximately $1 million to examine the $1.5 billion Coliseum-area redevelopment proposal that was eventually quashed by the city council. More than half of the total was paid before the plan was formally released to the public.

The former executive director of the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport was found guilty Tuesday of 23 of the 24 felony charges against him, stemming from the airport's arrangement to guarantee an airline's loan with money from a government grant. Included among the charges were ones related to his misuse of an airport credit card.
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Help VCOG help you stay vigilant and engaged. Join or donate today!

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Public-body response to COVID-19
VCOG has been compiling a list of the measures public bodies have been taking to hold public hearings and public meetings during the declaration of emergency due to the Coronavirus. You can add to the list by sending information to Megan Rhyne.

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Office supply list on Smile.Amazon
You know what's as valuable as your membership dues and financial gifts? 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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Media Awards: never too early to plan
VCOG was thrilled to recognize the winners and runners up for our inaugural FOI Media Awards Luncheon on Nov. 18.

It's never too early to start thinking about your nominations for 2020! We will again recognize great FOIA-based stories in the categories of daily newspaper, non-daily newspaper, broadcast and online.

Nominations will open in the late spring and will run through the end of July.
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VCOG is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. TIN 54-1810687
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Virginia Coalition for Open Government
P.O. Box 2576
Williamsburg, Virginia 23187

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