Sunshine Report for December 2019

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
December 2019
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Torrow is National #GivingTuesday, a day devoted to nonprofit fundraising.

How would your #GivingTuesday donation help VCOG? Well, in just over a month, the 2020 General Assembly will convene. That means dozens of bills VCOG will track (check out the home of our 2020 legislative chart). Megan Rhyne (VCOG's director) will lobby legislators and committees on many of them. She'll also be mentoring our 2020 Chip Woodrum Legislative intern, a current or recently graduated college student.

Your #GivingTuesday donation makes all of it possible and keeps VCOG at the forefront of advocating for the public's right to know.

Won't you contribute today? Click the globe below to get started.

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Going rogue
Two members of the Norfolk Public Schools Board shared a letter with the public in which they faulted the rest of the board for not responding properly to The Virginian-Pilot's FOIA requests. When asked by the paper for records related to the hiring of the board chair's brother-in-law, the district provided redacted records and insisted he was a volunteer only. The two board members released the unredacted records along with their letter. "We will not knowingly mislead the public as school board members and then be a part of any public perception of covering it up," they wrote.
Read the board members' letter here.
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FOIA Council opinion
The FOIA Council issued an opinion Nov. 6 addressing the University of Virginia's redaction, citing the anonymous fundraising exemption, of names in various emails. Though unable to determine if the redacted names were indeed donors who requested anonymity, the council confirmed that the exemption can only be used for records maintained "in connection with fundraising activities." That is, if the name appeared in records in a non-fundraising context they could not be redacted.
Read the opinion on VCOG's website.
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Open government
in the news
According to the Daily Press, Newport News is the only locality in the Hampton Roads and Peninsula regions that does not livestream or broadcast for later posting the board's work sessions. When a council member recently asked colleagues how they felt about recording sessions, some complained that it would promote grandstanding, that citizens just didn't want to come to a part of the city they considered unsafe, and that the meeting room was not properly equipped. While speaking highly of the more informal work sessions that were conducive to conversation, the city manager also said citizens weren't missing out because council members were active in communities and staff sent out daily newsletters.

The Martinsville City Council held a closed session behind the locked doors of the city municipal building. According to the Martinsville Bulletin, no one was at the doors to let members of the public into the building to witness the open meeting that is required before convening and when coming out of a closed meeting.

The saga of the missing school newspapers at Radford University continued with the university saying it had identified the perpetrator as a classified university employee. The school would not name the employee or provide any other information about him or her. The school further refused to release surveillance camera footage purportedly showing the employee removing the papers from some, but not all of the newspaper racks, citing the personnel exemption. The school admitted to destroying other possibly related video footage. The university police chief declined to bring charges against the employee, who was was disciplined under the state employee system, according to the school, because there was nothing criminal in "someone taking multiple copies of a free newspapers."

An alliance of construction contractors used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to records from Richmond, Suffolk and Chesterfield County to determine their building costs for constructing new schools. The alliance found that Richmond is paying more per square foot. The alliance faulted the city's procurement process.

At its Nov. 4 meeting, the Richmond Public School Board adopted the following provision for their legislative position document: "RPS supports policies to enhance transparency in the governance process overall. This includes revisions to existing FOIA laws to improve information access and engagement of family and community members in the governance of our schools, as well as policies to ensure public input and visibility in using private funding streams for public programs."
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A decades-old regional planning committee for Charlottesville and Albemarle County voted to dissolve itself as a public body and reconstitute as a staff-driven committee that will not hold open, public meetings.

A Hopewell city council member and the outgoing city clerk disputed the mayor's claim that she did not know that the woman she publicly endorsed for a part-time assistant's job to the council was facing criminal charges for allegedly smuggling drugs to a prisoner at the Buckingham Correctional Center where she worked. The clerk released her resignation letter, which included her assertions, while the council member relied on both the letter and "email traffic between city employees and the mayor," according to The Progress-Index.

The Purcellville Town Council held an emergency meeting to discuss letters sent out to approximately 1,800 people informing them that their personal information may have been exposed when a memory stick full of the police chief's email was provided to the former town manager and never returned.

The Supreme Court of Virginia agreed to hold a hearing on a motion by citizens pursuing a FOIA case against Smyth County that would compel the county's attorney, Del. Jeffrey Campbell, to file a brief in the appeal. Campbell has put off filing a brief for more than a year by citing the legislative continuance statute.

The statement given to the Virginia State Police by a Portsmouth police officer about why she shot a man in the hand was contradicted by the body camera footage of the incident.

Emails exchanged between the Mayor Levar Stoney's office and the Richmond Department of Procurement Services showed concern over the mayor's delay in reimbursing the city for personal expenses he put on his city charge card during a trip to a mayors' conference in Hawaii. The Richmond Times-Dispatch received copies of trip receipts, as well as the correspondence, which also showed the mayor's office told an earlier requester that the credit card statements were unavailable.

Virginia Beach’s former economic development director was indicted on 14 counts of felony embezzlement. He resigned abruptly last year after the city audited his credit card spending during his 11-year tenure as the department head.

The Clarke County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to terminate the county's economic development and tourism director's contract. After coming out of closed session, the board voted without discussion. Later, when asked why the contract was ended, one board member told The Winchester Star, "I don't think that's important."

Timberville became the first town in Rockingham County to live-stream its council meeting. “Council members know how hard it is to get to meetings,” the town manager said.

Loudoun County Public Schools launched an online portal for citizens to make FOIA requests. Users can track a request's progress using the porta and udates can be provided by email. They can also read correspondence or notes about specific requests and download electronic records deliverables.

The Front Royal Town Council considered developing a public information office to better communicate with citizens. The four-part plan, presented by the town's information technology director, included funneling media requests for member comments through the new office. This would give members a heads up, the director said, and would limit questions to "what was given to us." Later, the director told The Northern Virginia Daily, "it's not like we're trying to restrict anybody at all."

Petersburg officials considered adopting two ordinances dealing with city council operations. One rule would eliminate standing committees, while another would limit the way in which individual council members could communicate with groups or developers outside meetings. The concern expressed by the city manager was that individual councilors could make commitments on behalf of the entire body without the entire body’s consent.

A newly elected member of the Christiansburg Town Council chafed at the town council's request that she sign a non-disclosure agreement if she was going to sit in on council's closed session prior to being sworn in.

The New Market Town Council came out of its Nov. 18 meeting and, without notice, added an item to the agenda to approve a raise for the town manager from $86,674 annually to $98,200, a 13% increase.

Members of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors approved an amendment to their conflict of interest policy that those elected officials who exercise dominion over public monies certify that they are current on all local taxes.
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Congrats & Welcome!

Longtime VCOG board member and one-time VCOG board president Lawrence McConnell retired from his position as editor of The Roanoke Times in November. McConnell will be succeeded by Caroline Glickman, who will join the VCOG board on Jan. 1, and who will serve as regional editor in Roanoke and for six other BH Media newspapers in the southwest part of the state.
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We are excited to announce the data and location for our 2020 Annual Conference:

March 20,
Court Square Theater, Harrisonburg

We are looking for sponsors, donors and attendees.

Click here to find out more.

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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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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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VCOG is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. TIN 54-1810687
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