Sunshine Report for August 2018

The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency News from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
August 2018

FOIA full text

The full text of the Freedom of Information Act with amendments that went into effect July 1 is posted on VCOG's website, as are past versions of the act.

VCOG op-eds

VCOG's Megan Rhyne has recently penned two op-eds that have appeared in the new online news venture, The Virginia Mercury.

In "Private texts? Not if they're about public business," Rhyne explains how a public record that can be requested under FOIA is defined by the record's content, not by the device or account it was sent from or received by.

"The Right to Know: Just because you're allowed to, doesn't mean you have to" examines the pervasive secrecy surrounding the hiring of many powerful government administrators, secrecy that is not required by FOIA. This op-ed was prompted by the turmoil among city council members in Charlottesville as they tried to hire an interim city manager. The person selected for the job rescinded his acceptance, faulting the Charlottesville mayor for talking publicly about his qualifications and fit for the city. The candidate insisted the mayor didn't follow Virginia law.


FOIA Council updates

The FOIA Council is conducting four free FOIA "Records" training presentations. The first one was held July 25. The remaining dates are: 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018
Wednesday, October 3, 2018
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The training will be held from 2:00 - 3:30 PM in House Committee Room 300A of the Pocahontas Building located at 900 E. Main Street Richmond, VA 23219, near the Virginia State Capitol.  

To register, contact

Foundations ≠ universities

A judge in Fairfax ruled in early July that the George Mason Foundation is not a public body subject to FOIA because it is not supported wholly or principally by public funds. Furthermore, the foundation is not a sub-entity of the university that would require the university to respond to FOIA requests for foundation records.

The plaintiffs in the case are seeking records related to the donor agreements signed by the foundation and donors, specifically The Charles Koch Foundation.

Read the opinion on VCOG's website.


Conference reminder

VCOG's next annual conference will take place during Sunshine Week 2019 instead of during the fall. There will be no conference in the fall of 2018.

VCOG newsletter

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The courts and FOIA: litigation continues

Dr. William Turner has been engaged in litigation with the Office of Executive Secretary, the administrative arm of the court system, over access to phone records and other records. A district court ruled in August of 2017 (read the news article from that the OES failed to follow FOIA and should produce the records.

The OES then argued in Richmond Circuit Court (in an interpleader action brought by VITA to determine the ownership of the disputed emails) that the office is not subject to FOIA.

The Richmond judge ruled in favor of OES in late June but did not enter an order. At that point, the Virginia Press Association filed a motion to intervene in the case before the order was issued. Then, on July 20, the judge that ruled in OES' favor, Judge Westbrook Parker, recused himself.

Meanwhile, the OES and Turner continued the district court case to an Accomack County. The judge there entered a order in favor of OES on July 17.

An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch points out the connection the original case likely had to the legislation introduced in the 2018 General Assembly to exempt the judiciary from FOIA.

You can read many of the motions filed during the variou stages on VCOG's website.

On a postive note, the legislation worked out between the OES, the clerks of court, the Daily Press and the Virginia Press Association to open up a database of demographic data and judicial outcomes went into effect July 1.

Open government in the news

Attorneys for The Roanoke Times won a court case to unseal hundreds of pages of confidential records detailing a Vinton police officer's disciplinary history.  As stated in case law, “public access to judicial proceedings is consistent with the First Amendment and the common-law tradition that court proceedings are presumptively open to public scrutiny,” U.S. District Court Judge Micahel Urbanski’s ruling said.

The Department of Corrections voted unanimously on July 18 to clear several jails in 23 deaths that occurred in them in 2017 and 2018, but the board said it would not release to the public any of the individual reviews beyond the date of death, the name of the facility and the case number. Copies of the reports will only be distributed as “confidential working papers” to the governor, the speaker of the House of Delegates and the president pro tempore of the Senate.

Rep. Rob Wittman, who represents the state’s 1st Congressional District, was recognized for his office’s transparency and accountability by the Congressional Management Foundation.

The Town of Abingdon announced a new policy that would offer five free FOIA requests for every citizen. The town's FOIA officer -- also the town attorney and a defendant in an early FOIA case -- resigned in mid-July.

The state launched a new website that tracks the economic impact of federal government contracts on communities.

According to records obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch through FOIA, the Virginia Tourism Corporation paid $536,130.38 to ABC to film an episode of "The Bachelorette" in Richmond. The amount was divided between a financial contribution of $300,000 and an additional $236,130.30 in subsidies for rooms, meals, production space, internet and parking.

The Town of Haymarket spent $900 to hold a special meeting to strip town councilman Joe Pasanello of his title of vice mayor just two days before his term was to end. The town's mayor denied the action was prompted by Pasanello's email to a reporter that criticized the mayor.

The family of a man shot by two unidentified U.S. Park Police law November have filed a FOIA request with the park police and the Department of Justice seeking the officers' names and information about the incident.

Documents obtained by the Star-Tribune through FOIA revealed thousands of dollars spent by the Pittsylvania County Department of Social Services for hotels, clothes, parties and more. The DSS director declined to explain all of the charges, citing client confidentiality. The revelations led to a face-to-face altercation between the director and a county supervisor over the FOIA'ed receipts. The following week, the board of supervisors voted to launch a full financial audit of the department's spending.

Records obtained through FOIA by The Virginian-Pilot revealed the failed hiring process Virginia Beach undertook before settling on a candidate to oversee the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. The city spent at least $22,000 to investigate a discrimination complaint against it, then the city's first-choice candidate, from Vancouver, could not obtain a work visa.

The Winchester Police Department denied The Winchester Star's FOIA request for the 911 recording made by a shooting suspect who was himself shot by police. Nor would the department release the personnel file or hiring date of the officer who shot the man.

The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors rejected a request for more funds for the county attorney, but did authorize him to "feel out" settling one of the FOIA lawsuits pending against the county.

More than 400 people attended two forums in Staunton, and between 60 and 70 people spoke publicly, about whether to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. Though they did not agree with each other, most agreed that they had been heard.

A Front Royal town councilman suggested that the town's Monday work sessions be canceled because they were "not lucrative." Another councilman noted that the town code would have to be amended to cancel one of the two mandated meetings.

More than 40 inmates in jails and prisons in the Washington, D.C. area have died by suicide in custody since 2014, according to records obtained by a D.C.-area television station from correctional agencies in D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

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