Sunshine Report for February 2015


  The Sunshine Report: Online Transparency news from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government  
February 2015

In this issue

Sunshine Week to dawn

Open government in the news

Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

Dear Friends - 

January brings with it brisk breezes, bare branches and snowy sidewalks. It also brings with it the Virginia General Assembly. The oldest democratic body in the country mobilized itself into action on the 14th for a so-called short session, and it's been a non-stop roller croaster ride ever since.

VCOG has been following four dozen bills or so, testifying and getting the word out about others, helped by Zhina Kamali, our 2015  Chip Woodrum Legislative Internship. You can view the bills VCOG has been tracking on our annual legislative bill chart.

VCOG started the session joining with several other non-profit organizations who share an interest in seeing that the legislature's work is conducted openly. Transparency Virginia held a news conference to announce its (loose) formation and an intent to follow three areas of the General Assembly's work: meeting notice; consideration of all submitted bills; and recording of voice votes. The group meets regularly to share anecdotes and has plans to publish a mid-session and an end-of-session report.

Stay warm out there, friends, and, as always, thank you for your support.

Megan Rhyne

VCOG Executive Director 


Coalition News

VCOG's print newsletter

In case you missed your copy of VCOG's annual hard copy newsletter, click here to view it on our website.

VCOG on the road

In February, VCOG will be traveling to Blacksburg to participate in Open Data Day and to conduct FOIA training for staff at the Virginia Tech student paper, the Collegiate Times.

And for the 10th year, VCOG will also participate in the public interest law job fair at the University of Richmond. VCOG interviews rising second year law students from UR, William & Mary and Washington & Lee for its summer legal internship program.  

LeMunyon up, but out

Del. Jim LeMunyon, R-Chantilly, was named chair of the FOIA subcommittee of the House General Laws Comittee. The news was welcomed by VCOG since LeMunyon is also the co-chair of the FOIA Council, but it also lamented the move: LeMunyon had to step down from VCOG's Board of Directors. Thank you, Del. LeMunyon, for your service to VCOG during your term on the board.

Read up on open data

To make data work for us, government needs to start thinking creatively at the same time they are converting more of their records into databases that are then pushed out to the public. Citizens need to let their government know what records would make good data sets. And developers need to talk to both government and citizens about what they want those data sets to do. Continue reading on the VCOG Blog.

Sunshine Week to dawn in March

Sunshine Week began in Florida more than a decade ago as a way to draw the public’s attention to the way public records and public meetings inform their everyday lives, from the restaurants they eat at, to the schools their children attend, to the bridges they travel over on their way to work. 

Sunshine Week 2015 will be no different. No different except that we want all of our members to participate in what has traditionally been a media-centric event. 

CITIZENS - can request records, attend meetings, publish records they’ve already obtained, review/rate a local government or state agency website or compare responses for the same records from different departments or jurisdictions. 

MEDIA - can do stories made possible by records (individually or in databases), compare FOIA compliance across a region, highlight a par ticular area of access currently in the news and compare it to other states, spotlight access heroes in your area or demystify some of FOIA’s intricacies. 

GOVERNMENT - can host a Sunshine Week event to explain the access process to citizens, actively publish or distribute frequently requested records, extend public comment periods during a public meeting or write commentaries about the importance of an active and engaged citizenry.

VCOG’s Megan Rhyne will begin teaching a short course on FOIA at William & Mary’s adult  education program starting March 16.

Do you want get involved? Do you want to co-host an event? Or maybe you want to partner on a project. Contact us: or 540-353-VCOG. 


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New year; new rules

Shortly after the new year, public bodies and boards around the state met to welcome new members, pick new leaders and set new ground rules. The changes ran the gamut. The James City County School Board decided it would meet earlier to accomodate more attendees. The Appamattox Town Council decided it would meet less frequently, and King George County School Board decided it would meet at different locations around the county. Smyth County proposed rules limiting public comment. And Suffolk City County is considering adding to the city code a provision prohibiting members from disclosing anything discussed in a closed session.

Open government in the news

Members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board, once criticized by federal officials for lavish trips and business expenses, have largely curtailed their travel and spending, according to an examination of expense receipts from the past year....Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows ordered Fairfax police to turn over records related to the investigation into the shooting death of John Geer. Geer was shot by a police office as he stood in the doorway of his home; the county and the police department had remained mum for over a year....A judge rejected the request of several news organizations to allow cameras in the upcoming murder trial of Jesse Matthew in Fairfax County....Though there is a smattering of social media activity by city council members in Hampton Roads, an analysis by James Toscano shows Twitter remains a largely untapped opportunity for local elected officials to reach and meaningfully engage with their constituents....The ACLU and PETA reached a settlement with the City of Norfolk regarding the city's use and retention of text messages. Text messages that relate with public business are public records, just as email and paper records related to public business are....An email from a James City County developer to his attorney inadvertently wound up in the inbox of the city employee he was criticizing, prompting a fiery response from the employee's boss and an admonition to "take up policy disagreements with me directly, . . . but do not make any attempts to 'go after' our staff in this manner."....An article in the Columbia Journalism Review suggested that reporters and editors at the Virginian-Pilot are being pressured to back off of continued coverage of possible conflicts of interest between Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and Towne Bank....A Loudoun parent's successful lawsuit forced the Virginia Department of Education to release English and math improvement scores for county students. The parent said he wants Loudoun school officials to use the data in making decisions in teacher assessment and student needs....The Town of Strasburg released an app allowing residents to report potholes, vandalism and street light outages....According to the News Leader, Augusta County's Board of Supervisors likely violated Virginia's open meeting law last week when members met in a secret session and discussed its negotiations to get Staunton to pay for courthouse renovations and made plans to move the official seat of county government....The Times-Dispatch analyzed data it obtained through FOIA on the race of individuals killed by police in Virginia. The analysis did not include data from Fairfax County, which asserted that the age, gender and race of those killed were exempt from disclosure under FOIA....Law enforcement groups across the country are starting to chafe under the glare of Waze, a social media app that tracks traffic data, including the presence of police officers at certain locations. Beford County Sheriff Mike Brown urged Waze developers and its owner (Google) to "act like the responsible corporate citizen they have always been and remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action."....The Portsmouth school division took more than a month to release the terms of the contract with its newly hired superintendent. First the division said the terms were still being negotiated, then it said the agreed-upon contract contained an error....A Richmond Circuit judge heard arguments in a citizen's suit alleging that the city erred in failing to turn over records -- including a confidentiality agreement -- related to the sudden departure of a top city official. Another hearing is expected in early February....House Speaker Bill Howell announced steps to improve transparency in the budgeting process, including adopting a 48-hour waiting period proposed by Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge....Janice Denton, a city resident and member of the Hopewell Citizens for Good Government, filed a lawsuit against the city of Hopewell over City Council’s closed session to appoint the mayorand vice mayor....As reported in past issues of the Sunshine Report, the Daily Presshas been on a quest to gather case information from the Supreme Court's Office of Executive Secretary that used to be available in aggregate form but is now being withheld. To conduct an analysis of the case data, reporter Dave Ress enlisted the help of a Code for America volunteer, Ben Schoenfeld, to develop a tool that scraped the data from each case file one by one. If you find VCOG's services and resources useful,
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