Sunshine Report for February 2014


The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency news from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
  February 2014

In this issue

Support opening Virginia's FOIA to all

General Assembly FOIA update

Open government in the news


Coalition News

Director honored
VCOG board member and past board presidentLawrence McConnell, will be one of six individuals inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in April. McConnell is the publisher of the Charlottesville Daily Progress and is regional publisher for the Charlottesville Newspaper Group under BH Media. Raycom Media Group Vice President Don Richards, a former VCOG board member, is another in the group to be at the 27th anniversary of the Hall of Fame.

FracturedChipWoodrum Legislative Internship
Join us in celebrating the legacy of Chip Woodrum by being a part of our effort to endow a student internship for each General Assembly session, where the recipient would learn about and participate in the legislative process. Please keep Chip’s memory alive in our hearts and minds, and in the minds of future generations of leaders.

Open Government in the News

James City County announced it would consider an internal rule change to allow for taping of closed sessions, however the proposal was never taken up....Warren County announced it would consider adopting a web-based meeting packet system that would allow members to view, modify and add agenda items, insert comments and electronically vote on motions.Pulaski is also considering placing agenda materials online...The Library of Virginia unveiled a new section of its website devoted to records management policies and procedures that includes a records management policy template that can be used as-is or edited to suit the needs of a particular agency or locality, as well as a guidance document on developing specific records management procedures....Loudoun County school officials acknowledged that the personal information of students and staff had been made publicly available on a website page, most likely through a maintenance error by an outside vendor....The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals indicated it was suing the City of Norfolk for its failure to preserve public employee text messages....Perhaps prompted by a piece of legislation that would have required it to make audio of its oral arguments public, the Supreme Court of Virginia began posting those recordings to its website....The Supreme Court of Virginia heard oral arguments Jan. 9 on whether UVA properly withheld from the American Tradition Institute the email records of former professor and climate scientist Michael Mann. A ruling is expected this spring....The King George County Board of Supervisors was chastisted by residents over members' use of personal email accounts to conduct public business.

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Support HB788: Open Virginia's
FOIA to requests from out of state

The Supreme Court may have said Virginia FOIA's limitation barring out-of-state requesters was constitutional, but it did not say the law was a good one.

HB788 would amend FOIA to allow out-of-state requesters to ask for and receive records.

With a nod toward some agencies' concerns that they might not get paid, the procedures allow prepayment for any out-of-state request over $10.

And, with a nod toward local governments' concerns that staff would be burdened by the increased number of FOIAs, the bill gives them 30 days to respond to a request, instead of the usual 5.

We strongly support the bill:

  • Virginia is out of step with the 44 other states that allow requests from around the country.
  • The real burden on government is when they end up processing two requests: the first when they tell an out-of-state requester "no," the second  when that requester finds someone in Virginia who will make the request for him and the government must respond to that one...and within five days.
  • A person's interest in a state does not end when he crosses the border. She may live in another state but has a family member in a Richmond nursing home; own property in Pulaski County; live in Bristol, Tenn., but work in Bristol, Va.; consider Norfolk home but had a military transfer to another state; or is a co-owner of Fairfax business.
  • The limitation hampers comprehensive research, including studies on elections, epidemiology and racial discrimination.
Please contact the House General Laws Committee to voice your support.The members, with links to their contact pages, can be found here. The committee meets TUESDAY afternoon.

Updates to the Virginia General Assembly 2014

A Senate subcommittee did not recommend reporting SB212, which would havelimited the scope of the General Assembly's working papers exemption. The exemption would remain, but the bill would have said it could be used only for matters dealing with the drafting and amending of legislation.

The full Senate General Laws committee will nonetheless hear the bill today.Contact the members if you want to express your support.

Any effort to open up the State Corporation Commission's records will likely be through the SCC's statutes instead of through FOIA. Two bills that would have placed the agency under FOIA are stalled in the House Commerce & Labor Committee. Meanwhile, two other bills that place responsibility for records-release under the SCC's title -- though with the response-time limits of FOIA -- have sailed through the Commerce & Labor Committees of both houses.

A House subcommittee advanced to the full committee on Rules a recommendation that the FOIA Council study the continued usefulness of the Freedom of Information Act’s 172 exemptions for records or meetings.

FOIA has not been comprehensively reviewed since 1999. At that time there were 102 exemptions. Only 16 members of the current House of Delegates were serving in 1999.

The bill requires the FOIA Council to report back to the legislature in December 2016 which exemptions should be eliminated or changed.

In other FOIA news at the legislature, the same subcommittee advanced a bill torequire state agencies to post on their websites an explanation of the fees that can (and cannot) be charged for FOIA requests. The vote was unanimous.

The subcommittee reported a bill related to certain data held by the Department of Rail & Public Transportation. The bill has been amended to narrow the scope of the exemption, which would have included Amtrak passenger data. A similar bill was recommended to report from a Senate subcommittee

The House subcommittee wrangled over the permission granted to local government officials' use of the "emergency" and "personal matters" optionto connect electronically to a public meeting instead of attending in person.

The subcommittee approved one version of the bill, which deletes the requirement that a majority of the public body approve the remote participation, and replaces it with a requirement that the local government must prepare a policy on remote participation and apply it consistently. A different bill, which would have kept the approval, but also required the reason for approving/disapproving remote participation to be recorded in the minutes, was withdrawn by the patron. There is a Senate bill that tracks this latter bill, so the debate there will continue.

Finally, the House omnibus ethics reform bill includes a provision to create a publicly accessible online database of financial disclosure forms.



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