Sunshine Report for February 2020

Sunshine Report for February 2020


Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report: February 2020 


In memorium:
Emily Abbit Woodrum

Emily Abbitt Woodrum, wife of the late Chip Woodrum, died Jan. 14. As you know, VCOG has an internship for college students or recent graduates to learn about the legislative process by shadowing me at the General Assembly and by spending time with others essential to the process -- the House clerk's office, legislators, staff attorneys, journalists, etc. There wouldn't be a Chip Woodrum Legislative Internship if it were not for Mrs. Woodrum. She embraced our idea and gave her blessing to our efforts to raise money to create an endowment for the internship. She then made that task easier when she also arranged for one of Chip's retirement accounts to contribute an amount to us each year since 2014. The internship is fully endowed, and Mrs. Woodrum's children continue to carry the torch of their parents' thoughtfulness and civic-mindedness. VCOG owes them all a tremendous debt, and I am so sorry to hear of the passing of such a gracious, spirited woman.

2020 legislative update

House Bill 671 advanced from a subcommittee on a 5-1 vote and will now head to the full House Courts of Justice Committee. This is the bill that VCOG developed with Del. Mike Mullin (an identical version patroned by Del. Jason Miyares was incorporated into 671) to require the Office of Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court to respond to requests for records through FOIA. Once under FOIA, the OES could use existing exemptions and ask for additional exemptions to fit its specific needs, just as other government entities do.

Here is a link to the House Courts of Justice Committee. If any of these members is YOUR representative, please consider calling them or shooting them an email asking that they support HB 671.

VCOG is tracking several pro-transparency bills -- including ones to require local government to provide public comment during at least half of its regularly scheduled meetings; to require IDA and EDA board members to take FOIA training; and four recommended by the FOIA Council -- as well as one expanding when public body members can phone into a meeting instead of attending in person that VCOG opposes.

Check out these and other bills on VCOG's annual bill tracking chart.

And for a round-up of some of the many bills that affect transparency in K-12 and higher education, read this article in The Daily Progress.


Annual Conference: sponsors

VCOG's annual conference is March 20 in Harrisonburg. The link to register will go up soon, and in the meantime, we are seeking sponsors and donors. This is VCOG's biggest fundraiser of the year. Your donations and sponsorships underwrite both the costs of putting the conference on and VCOG's annual operating budget, from bookkeeping and insurance expenses, to the travel and expenses associated with advocating on behalf of the public's right to know during the General Assembly session.

Visit VCOG's sponsorship/donor page today!

Open government in the news

A circuit court judge ruled that the Town of Leesburg could not take extra time to answer a FOIA request about Microsoft’s proposed data center near town, and ordered that the information would not be covered by a non-disclosure agreement the town signed last fall.

The Leesburg Town Council also crossed swords over whether to hold a closed meeting to discuss threatened litigation from the owners of a proposed brewery, winery and co-housing development that wants sewer service from the town. Three council member opposed the closed session, while three supported it; the tie vote meant the request for closed session failed.

And that wasn’t all for Leesburg. The council found themselves at odds again after three members of the body sent a letter to accusing the three other council members of engaging in a “concerted strategy” to terminate the town attorney’s employment contract. A week later, the council went into closed session to discuss both the letter and the town attorney’s performance.

In Loudoun County, the board of supervisors adopted a change to their Code of Conduct to say that if a member speaks publicly about what the board talked about in closed session, then the board will vote to either retroactively approve that disclosure or reaffirm the decision to keep the information secret. The board can also vote to sanction or censure the board member for “improper disclosure” of the information.

Frederick County's board rejected an amendment to its rules of procedure that would have imposed additional restricts on board member communications with county residents, staff members and the media. Among other things, the proposal would have prohibited members from engaging in dialogue with the members of the public during hearings or citizen comment periods.

Charlottesville adopted a new policy governing requests for records under FOIA. The policy charges requesters in 15-minute increments, though the first 15 minutes are waived. Each hard copy will cost $.08.

Shenandoah County supervisors adopted a resolution stating support for reinstating a policy whereby legislators in the General Assembly would submit bills by the first day of the legislative session when those bills would have a fiscal impact on localities.

A federal court judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Sen. Joe Morrissey against WTVR, an on-air columnist and others. District Judge Henry E. Hudson said Holmberg's column and subsequent online article were clearly presented as political opinion.

Augusta County agreed to begin live-streaming their meetings. When asked about the cost of the new initiative, the county administrator said that other than buying a tripod for the camera they already had, there was no upfront costs.

A Strasburg Town Council member both defended the character of the town's mayor, who is facing legal charges related to crashing a John Deere Gator into the town library, and asked the town attorney how the council might protect itself if both the council and the mayor had access to confidential information. The attorney said the mayor would have the same access to ordinary information, as long as the information was available to the entire council.

The ACLU sent a letter to the sheriff of Loudoun County warning him about blocking critics from his Facebook page. The complaint was brought to the ACLU’s attention by the man who ran against the sheriff in the prior election.

A circuit court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Rappahannock County supervisor Ron Frazier, whose request to have the county pay for his attorney fees in a FOIA lawsuit against the county, was denied by the board. Frazier is not a party named in the lawsuit, but it was his assertion that the county had violated FOIA’s closed-meeting provisions that led to the lawsuit being filed by a county citizen.

A Facebook-based group in Alexandria obtained records via FOIA between city fire department officials and the Transportation and Environmental Services Department over a road lane-change discussion and decision that threw some of the public comments on the issue into question.

The newly elected sheriff of Washington County met with the family of a man shot by county police to show them video of the incident. The sheriff refused to disclose the video to anyone else, saying it would “only cause more undue stress to the officers involved and the family.”

After The Virginian-Pilot detailed multiple instances of visitors to various correctional facilities being strip-searched as a condition of visiting their incarcerated loved ones, the Department of Corrections vowed to stop the practice. Two legislators also submitted bills to prohibit the conduct. The DOC had earlier provided only limited information in response to a FOIA request for records relating to strip searches.

The mayor and town recorder of Berryville continued to spar over the latter’s accusations against the former that he had a conflict of interest. A Virginia State Police investigation into the recorder did not result in any criminal charges. Then, when the recorder criticized the mayor during a public meeting, the mayor accused the recorder of plotting a “sneak attack” by not telling others what he planned to say.

The standard procedure by which the Warren County Board of Supervisors approves its monthly accounts payable was called into question by new board members who balked at approving expenditures for items they did not understand. Veteran board members suggested that questions be directed to staff prior to a meeting.

A citizen speaking at the first meeting of the newly constituted Cumberland County Board of Supervisors pointed out that the new members — who had not yet been sworn in — had met together in December with the county administrator and representatives from a recycling company. The administrator characterized the meeting as a “training program,” and confirmed that none of the lame-duck supervisors were invited.

Legal counsel for Martinsville’s attempt to revert to a town asked the town council to “memorialize” a unanimous decision at a special meeting held a month earlier.  
We are excited to announce the date 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.

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...)



Media 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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