Sunshine Report for December 2018

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
December 2018
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Virginia, Amazon & FOIA
Imagine if you were sitting down to dinner tonight and your spouse said she had something really important to talk with you about.

You’re not totally surprised by this because she’s been gone a lot, taking whispered phone calls, sending late-night texts. But you still don’t really know what might come next.

“SURPRISE!” she exclaims. “We’re moving to Boston!”

This may be the best opportunity that has ever come your family’s way. Ten years from now you may find yourself wondering why you even hesitated.  But right now, you’re feeling kind of blindsided.

Announcements of economic development deals can have that same impact on the public. And certainly that’s how many are receiving the news of the Amazon HQ2 deal with Virginia.

This may be the best opportunity ever to come the commonwealth’s way, and 10 years from now I may wonder why I even hesitated.

But the announcement has come with a cost. Not in dollars and cents but in trust and transparency.

To continue reading on VCOG's website, click here
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Comments on the Supreme Court's proposed rules
VCOG submitted comments to the Virginia Supreme Court in response to its proposed rules governing access to records held by the judicial branch. VCOG responded to many specific provisions, but also started from the premise that some records held by the judiciary should be subject to FOIA, and that the Office of Executive Secretary is a public body for purposes of FOIA.

To read the comments on VCOG's website, click here

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Open government: training on the road
In November, VCOG's FOIA and records management webinar drew more than 300 registrants representing over 80 state and local government entities. This was VCOG's fifth webinar broadcast from Tidewater Community College's Chesapeake campus. Glenn Smith of the Library of Virginia presented the records management portion of the program; VCOG's Megan Rhyne presented the FOIA portion.

In November Rhyne also gave presentations this month at the Libbie Mill Public Library in Henrico and to a parents' education group in Loudoun County. She taught a three-day course at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at William and Mary on how to monitor the General Assembly and government through use of the Legislative Information System, the Virginia Public Access Project's website and FOIA.
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Open government
in the news
The Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments in Bergano v. Virginia Beach, a FOIA case about access to detailed billing records of outside attorneys. The city redacted everything but the total amount billed, and argued Friday that redaction was needed to protect the attorney-client privilege and litigation strategy. Listen to the oral arguments here. Listen to the oral arguments on the Supreme Court's website.

The day before it was scheduled to be heard, the chairman of the Hopewell Republican Committee withdrew his FOIA lawsuit against Hopewell’s registrar, Yolanda Stokes, after the information he requested about election officer party affiliation was released to him. Three weeks later, Brandon Howard staged a protest outside Stokes' office and sat in the front row of an electoral board meeting with a gun holstered on his hip.

A few months after a new law went into effect sharply limiting public universities' ability to release student contact information, Liberty University leased a list of university-owned student email addresses to Republican Corey Stewart’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

Martinsville officials turned over all the evidence they collected in a investigation involving Henricopolis to the city’s Commonwealth Attorney, as well as to the Attorney General's office and the U.S Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. The federal attorney's office said it would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, and the city's attorney sought an order prohibiting release of any information through FOIA.

A federal judge unexpectedly sealed large swathes of a racketeering case against suspected members of a Danville street gang, barring the public from viewing documents related to nine of the 10 defendants. It is not known which judge sealed the case because the documentation of the written or verbal motion to seal also is under wraps.

VDOT announced it will give the public access to an internal website that tracks state snow-removal equipment on the highways.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute filed suit against Attorney General Mark Herring alleging Herring refused to provide documents to support the office's 2017 application for a New York University law fellow to work in the office on clean energy issues.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is asking Charlottesville to replace City Councilor Mike Signer on its board after he missed the board’s past four meetings. Signer said he's had a series of "family conflicts with TJPDC meetings."

The Front Royal Town Council tussled with its regional economic development authority, first when it was made public that the EDA overcharged the town for debt service payments, then when two town council members walked out of a closed meeting after they refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement on a proposal offered by the EDA.

A self-described "court records nerd" was combing through filings on one matter when he stumbled across records in another matter that revealed the Department of Justice may be preparing criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. A motion filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press soon after to make the charges public was still under consideration in an Alexandria federal district court by the month's end.

The Charlottesville Chief of Police again brought data to the city council on arrests and stop-and-frisk incidents for the previous month. The data, which the chief said she will regularly post online starting in December, showed that in October, of the 148 people stopped by police, 46% were white and 39% were black.

A jury ruled Portsmouth Vice Mayor Elizabeth Psimas defamed the former city auditor in comments to the media on his job performance and should pay him $775,000 in damages. In a 2016 TV interview, Psimas asked, "What is the auditor doing?" and stated that the community "is disgusted with the situation."

The judge hearing presiding over the murder trial of John Alex Fields Jr. signed an order banning electronic devices, backpacks, purses, firearms, bags and any item that the judge or a bailiff could deem disruptive from the courtroom and a separate viewing room. A live camera feed was allowed for that viewing room, but no cameras are otherwise allowed in the courtroom or viewing room.

A federal judge dismissed the Daily Press from a defamation lawsuit brought by the former head of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, agreeing with the paper that it had a fair reporting privilege to repeat statements contained in public records.

Virginia is not alone in passing legislation or instituting procedures that shield the identity of the compounding pharmacies that provide drugs necessary for the implementation of executions by lethal injection. 

Gov. Ralph Northam's office declined a FOIA request for the governor's calendar that would reveal whom he might be meeting with regarding the permit Dominion Energy needs for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The Warrenton Town Council publicly interviewed three candidates to serve as interim town manager. The town used the same open-meeting interview process it used three years ago to select the town manager.

The Waynesboro City Council arrived at what it considered a compromise position with regard to how many times it will discuss proposed ordinances before adopting them. The council had proposed cutting the number of times down to one from two. Ultimately the council decided to keep the number at two for regular ordinances, but use only one hearing for ordinances relating the city's receipt of funds.

Emails obtained from Metro revealed its willingness to work with the organizer of a white supremacist rally in Washington, D.C., on special accommodations. The emails were released on Nov. 8, three months after they were first requested. Metro originally refused to disclose the records, saying they would jeopardize the security of its operations and the safety of its customers and employees, but an appeals panel in D.C. agreed with The Washington Post that the public had a right to see what was pledged to the organizers.

A legislative proposal would prohibit the disclosure of the name and hometown of any winner of $10 million or more in the Virginia Lottery.
FOI awards

VCOG is seeking nominations for its annual FOI awards.

Click here for more.

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VCOG luanches FOI Slack channel

VCOG is rolling 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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VCOG is participating in the AmazonSmile program, where Amazon donates .5% of your order total to the charitable organization of your choice.

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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