Sunshine Report for August 2019

 
Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
August 2019
 
 
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Transparency in the
2019 General Assembly
How did the General Assembly perform with regard to transparency during the 2019 legislative session? Read the fifth annual analysis of legislative transparency by Transparency Virginia to find out. VCOG's Megan Rhyne is the principal author of the report, which makes recommendations  the House and the Senate could take to continue progress both chambers have made in since TVa first began its observations.

 
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FOIA Council updates
The FOIA Council issued a new opinion in July. Advisory Opinion 04-19 addressed the reasonableness of fees. The council said it would "appear likely" that when the requester twice narrowed the scope of her reuqest that the county's estimate of charges should have decreased. But the council could not say whether the charged amount -- which stayed the same -- was reasonable, once again affirming that only a court can make that determination.

The Council gave the green light for a subcommittee to continue its study of the relationship between FOIA and phishing. The City of Portsmouth urged the study, saying information on employees obtained via FOIA could be put together with one or two additional data points to commit identity theft

The city offered a handful of recommendations it said would combat phishing, including requiring a state ID to request aggregated employee salary data or contact information, and granting immunity to government when they refer FOIA requesters to law enforcement.

VCOG will be submitting comments to the council's subcommittee in advance of its Aug. 21 meeting.
 
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FOIA and the Virginia Beach shootings
Many FOIA-related issues -- for both records and meetings -- have surfaced in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building. An article by The Virginian-Pilot chronicled the "five dozen" FOIA requests the paper has made and the responses it received. Many requests were filled, but about a quarter were denied, including a request for 10 hours of police body camera footage. The paper also reported that five city council members met with city employees to learn about how they were coping, but they did not give notice of their meeting under FOIA. Meanwhile, the city announced it had hired a Chicago firm to head an independent probe of the incident and that the firm would have unrestricted access to all "reports, documents, and other records."
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Open government
in the news
An Albemarle circuit judge ruled said the county could continue its prosecution of two people arrested for causing a disturbance at a local school board meeting. The same judge, however, dismissed similar charges against a third person because, unlike the others, she approached the podium silently and was given only two seconds to leave the podium before she was escorted away.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which was originally led by VCOG's founding board president, Bob O'Neil, shuttered its doors and transferred its assets to UVA's law school to revive its dormant First Amendment Clinic. The clinic will be taught by attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Norfolk School Board faced criticism for approving the purchase of a member's plane ticket for a family vacation. The board reasoned that the member needed to come back so she could take part in an important vote and that it "wasn't feasible" for the member to participate remotely.

A video report prepared by Maury High School students detailing the poor physical condition of the Norfolk school was ordered removed from the school news YouTube channel by school administrators.

Pursuant to legislation passed by the 2018 General Assembly, the Supreme Court of Virginia launched an online search engine to look up criminal and traffic cases in all general districts and (except for Alexandria and Fairfax County) all circuit courts. The "Online Case Information System 2.0" allows for name or case number searches.

Emails obtained by the Tidewater Review showed heated exchanges between the King William County fire chief and a county supervisor over fire department operations that eventually led to the fire chief's firing. The fire chief responded to his firing by filing a claim against the supervisor for harassment, retaliation and creating a hostile work environemnt.

Christiansburg Town Council members clarified its policy over when a council member could speaking to the town's outside attorney. The discussion took place after the town received a $115 bill for a conversation with the attorney that the member did not realize constituted legal consultation.

A divided Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors voted to remove a member of the County Service Authority Board after video surfaced of the member threatening a local business owner with negative publicity in the paper for the business' refusal to donate gifts to the authority's Christmas party.

A federal judge ordered the release of a massive Drug Enforcement Administration dataset that tracks prescription opioid pills locality by locality. The highest per capita number of pills in the country was in Martinsville, with Norton in second place.

The Rutherford Institute filed a federal FOIA request with the Department of Homeland Security asking for all contracts entered into the media monitoring services, which the institute fears would create a media influencer database for content created and posted by journalists, editors, social media influencers and bloggers.

Charlottesville contemplated adopting a policy on how to charge requesters for records under FOIA. The proposal would waive the first 15 minutes of time spent on the request but would then charge the pro rated salary of the employee involved in the request in 15-minute increments.

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation in Michigan was awarded $6,000 in attorney fees for its lawsuit against Wayne State University over its wrongful withholding of records requested under that state's FOIA by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards about the Flint water crisis.

A member of the Portsmouth City Council asked the council to consider resuming broadcast of all public speakers at council meetings. The council discontinued the practice this spring in the wake of the police chief's ouster. The member said he wants to also require speakers to stick to issues relevant to city government.

A Portsmouth judge put the brakes on the city's attempt to close the building that houses the city's jail. The Portsmouth sheriff sought the court order the day after the city manager announced to city council that the building was uninhabitable. The city manager said she was relying on a report prepared by an outside contractor. The city did not provide a copy of the report to The Virginian-Pilot, but the paper obtained it from the sheriff's court filings.

The man who twice threatened to have members of the Roanoke City Council shot was barred for life from city council meetings and city hall. Robert Gravely said the threats were necessary to force the city to listen to citizens.

The Clarke County Board of Supervisors directed staff to issue county government email addresses to all board and commission members. The directive came at the suggestion of the county's FOIA officer who said, with government email addresses, she would not have to wade through correspondence in members' personal email or social medial accounts to find county-related correspondence in response to a FOIA request.

Upset by restrictions the Richmond mayor and chief administrative officer placed on city council members' ability to talk with city officials outside of meetings, councilmember Reva Trammell publicly announced the cell phone numbers of the mayor and other top officials.

The school boards in Lynchburg and Norfolk considered changes to their public comment periods. In Lynchburg, the suggestion was to place a three-month moratorium on anyone who has already spoken to the board twice about a particular topic. In Norfolk, the suggestion was to split the comment period into two segments: one to address agenda items and one for other issues. One board member complained that the change was made without public discussion in an open meeting.

Four members of the Amherst Town Council voted to expel the council's fifth member but refused to say why. The move came after the council closed the public meeting under FOIA's personnel exemption. After announcing a special election to fill the vacant seat, the expelled member filed paperwork to appear on the ballot in November.
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Media awards
VCOG is pleased to announce its 2019 media FOIA awards lunch. Click here for details on submissions (deadline is TODAY) and criteria.
 
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Office supply list on Smile.Amazon

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 Smile.Amazon.com, 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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