Sunshine Report for August 2017

The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency News from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
August 2017

Long live the queen!

She has been the reigning queen of FOIA for decades, 17 of those years at the helm of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council. But as of today, Maria has left the building. 

Maria Everett retires today from her job as the council’s first and only director to date, as well as from her role as staff attorney to the House General Laws Committee within the Division of Legislative Services.

During her tenure, Maria has trained thousands of Virginia state and local government workers on the ins and outs of Virginia’s FOIA. She and Alan Gernhardt (and the two staff attorneys before him) have fielded tens of thousands of telephone and email inquiries during that same period.

What has made Maria so effective is her ability to connect with her audience. She used humor to relax folks and to make them feel like we are all in this together — from the “icky” factor of having to release people’s contact information, to the sex-chat-in-schools hypothetical she used to drive home that we are all citizens who want to be treated fairly when we seek answers through records. Recently, she acknowledged audience frustrations with FOIA’s convoluted provisions by incorporating an old Johnny Guitar Watson song reference into her opening remarks: “Lord, it’s a real mother FOIA.”

I have long admired Maria's legal mind, her practical solutions and her dedication to public service. I have been fortunate to call her my friend, too. The perfect little red sweater she knitted when my now-10-year-old was born still hangs among his current shirts and jackets.

Read this Dan Casey column in The Roanoke Times for perspectives from those who have worked with Maria and followed her tenure at the council. 

VCOG will honor Maria with a dinner Nov. 15 at the Richmond downtown Hilton Garden Inn. Watch this space for ticket information next month.


Who is your FOI hero?

Do you know a reporter who has used public records to shed light on an important community issue? How about someone in government who goes above and beyond the letter of the law to promote transparency? Or, maybe you know a citizen who has used his or her own time and money to get answers from our representative government?

Nominate your FOI hero on VCOG’s website. Awards will be announced in November and winners will be acknowledged at VCOG’s annual conference on Nov. 16 at the Richmond Times-Dispatch building.


FOIA & records-
management webinar

VCOG and the Library of Virginia are teaming up again with Tidewater Community College to present another free webinar on records management and FOIA. This is the third webinar held in partnership with TCC at their Chesapeake campus and at least the 10th FOIA/records-management joint training session with the library. Though the content is geared more toward government employees -- records managers, FOIA officers and anyone else who deals with government records -- anyone is eligible to attend. Just click the registration below to be taken to the Eventbrite registration page.

Eventbrite - FOIA and Records Management, Sept. 13, 2017


VCOG’s next annual conference will be Nov. 16 at the Richmond Times-Dispatch building. Many thanks to the RTD’s publisher, Tom Silvestri, and managing editor, Paige Mudd, for hosting!

We will feature panels on reporters who now handle government communication and a roundtable discussion with the leaders of the Tennessee and North Carolina open government coalitions comparing various provisions from their state open records and open meetings laws with Virginia's.

Registration opens next month, so watch this space!

At the FOIA Council

The FOIA Council moved offices in June as part of the destruction of the old General Assembly Building to make way for a new home for the legislature.

The address at the council's temporary quarters in the Pocahontas Building is 900 East Main St., 10th Floor, Richmond, Virginia 23219. Additionally, the council no longer has a local Richmond number, but the toll-free number remains the same: 866-448-4100.


Open government in the news

Norfolk officials allowed records that may be related to a federal investigation into the former sheriff’s practices in awarding service contracts to be shredded. The documents were approved for shredding in February, seven days before documents involving the same matter were given to the FBI in response to a federal grand jury subpoena.

The Virginia Supreme Court Issued an order turning back a challenge brought by the Center for Public Integrity against the State Corporation Commission that sought financial information filed by title-loan companies. CPI appealed the SCC’s refusal to release the records. “Even if the Commission ultimately had concluded that the Center's interpretation of [the law] was correct, that would only mean that the statute does not prohibit the Commission from releasing the reports,” the court wrote. “It would not mean that the Commission is required to release them.”

An activist who wants to gather signatures from Richmond registered voters to pursue a school improvement initiative filed suit against the Department of Elections to challenge a state law that limits who can access the department’s computerized lists of those voters. The law allows incumbents, candidates, government officials, political action committees and nonprofit advocacy groups access to the election department’s information. But the law does not allow access to individuals engaged in political activity, such as leading a petition drive.

The City of Charlottesville launched an open data portal in early July that will showcase public information about policing, property, traffic, parks, demographics and the environment.

The City of Richmond took several days to publicly disclose the amount of severance former auditor Umesh Dalal will receive. Dalal abruptly resigned earlier in July, and City Council President Chris Hilbert said at the time that he could not comment on the severance package, in part because he said it hadn’t yet been calculated. The city finally went public on July 24 with the amount of the package: $400,000.

A judge in Accomack County heard arguments in mid-July in a FOIA case that seeks to compel the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia to respond to his FOIA requests, which he claims will show that circuit judges have been using a $1,500/year state allocation without any accountability.

A Hampton woman was fined $300 after a jury found her guilty of a misdemeanor election fraud charge. The woman created a website taking a swipe at a candidate for Hampton School Board, which was legal, but which included the incorrect election date, which was not. The woman was found to have communicated “false information to registered voters.”

The CEO of Dominion, who heads a search committee tasked with finding a new superintendent for Richmond Public Schools, raised eyebrows on the school board when it was revealed he expected committee members to sign a six-point confidentiality pledge, including a promise not to disclose, discuss or in any way share the name or identifying information about any candidates before, during or after the screening and search process.

A judge in Nottoway County dismissed a Richmond-area woman’s FOIA complaint against the county manager, but nonetheless ordered the county to reimburse the woman’s costs. Eileen McAfee said the manager told her a record about an animal control officer did not exist. McAfee knew the record existed, though, because she received a copy of the same record from a different source. At the July 21 hearing, the county manager said both that he misunderstood what McAfee was asking for and that even if he had, the record would have been exempt as a personnel record.

A U.S. District Judge in Northern Virginia ruled that the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors violated a citizen’s First Amendment rights when she temporarily blocked him from using her Facebook page. “The court holds only that under the specific circumstances presented here, [the] defendant violated the First Amendment by engaging in viewpoint discrimination and banning plaintiff from a digital forum for criticizing her colleagues in the county government,” the ruling states. 


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