Sunshine Report for January 2016



The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency news from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
  January 2016

VCOG on the road

In December, VCOG's Megan Rhyne  participated in the League of Women Voter's annual legislative preview, which included dozens of different advocacy groups and comments from Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran.

VCOG notes

VCOG is sad to say goodbye to a longtime board member. Mark Grunewald, a law professor at Washington & Lee University, stepped down after more than 10 years on the board. Mark was especially helpful in reviewing requests for VCOG to join FOIA case appeals and in his examination of VCOG's endowment and our investment strategy. THANK YOU for your service, Mark!

Taking Mark's vacated seat for a three-year term is Michele Bush "Shelley" Kimball, a Springfield resident and a professor of media law at The George Washington University and online at the University of Florida.​

Meet Elisa Rudolph

VCOG is pleased to introduce Elisa Rudolph, the 2016 Chip Woodrum Legislative Intern. Elisa is a junior at VCU pursuing a double major in urban studies and elementary education.

Elisa is the second Woodrum intern, a program funded by the family of the late Chip Woodrum and scores of his friends and colleagues.

Elisa will be shadowing VCOG's Megan Rhyne during the legislative session and assisting her in the coalition's communications on bills and committee meetings. She will also spend time with different legislators and members of legislative staff to get a feel for the entire lawmaking process.

Welcome Elisa!

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Court: election should have been in the open

A Richmond circuit court judge ruled that members of the Hopewell City Council should not have selected a mayor and vice mayor among themselves behind closed doors.

Hopewell citizen Janice Denton brought the case in general district court on her own last spring and lost. Represented by attorney Andrew Bodoh, Denton refiled in Richmond circuit court, arguing that the personnel exemption for closed meetings in FOIA did not cover the election of the city mayor and vice mayor. In return, Hopewell argued that the process was not really an “election,” which is not mentioned in the exemption, but instead an “appointment,” which is.

Judge W. Allan Sharrett disagreed, refusing the treat the two terms interchangeably and standing by FOIA’s admonition to construe exemptions narrowly. Sharrett also noted that the city’s charter describes the process for choosing a mayor and vice mayor as an election.

The city has not indicated yet whether it will appeal.

Countdown to the General Assembly

With just over a week before the General Assembly session kicks off, proposed bills are pouring in day by day. Several FOIA-related bills have been posted, including one to make certain FOIA violations a Class 1 misdemeanor, one to exempt the résumés of gubernatorial appointments from the working papers exemption (in other words, the résumés would be public), three that specifically make redevelopment site plans available upon request, and one to require electoral board meeting minutes to be posted on the websites of their respective localities.

Many others that have been mentioned or discussed, but haven’t been filed, include ones that would allow a judge to limit the records requests of one person, that would protect teacher performance data, that would override the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling that practically gutted the duty to redact and that would lengthen the timeline for government to respond to a FOIA request.partycake

But unquestionably, our favorite bill that we’ll be following in 2016 is a House joint resolution commending VCOG on our . . . wait for it . . . 20th anniversary!

Follow the bills we follow on our website or follow bills on any and all bills on the General Assembly's legislative information system.

Open government in the news

The City of Petersburg and its mayor settled a lawsuit with a one-time school board candidate for refusing to let him speak during a public meeting because over unpaid fees related to his campaign. The city will pay Linwood Christian, who was represented by the ACLU of Virginia, $3,000 and is supposed to post a statement affirming the public’s right to speak at meetings on the city’s website. . . . Portsmouth held a closed-door discussion on the status of a Confederate monument despite one city council member’s request that it be held publicly. According to that member, the city’s attorney wanted to brief the council about a legal challenge to the Danville City Council’s decision to remove Confederate flags from city-owned flagpoles. . . . The last meeting of a Shenandoah County supervisor proved dramatic as the supervisor’s wife confronted a local newspaper reported and demanded she take notes about all the positive things being said about the supervisor: “Take notes. What did he say? What did he say about my husband?” . . . Fans of Uber mobilized to send a message to Norfolk to allow the ride-sharing service access to the airport without having to pay certain fees. The problem was that they sent the boilerplate emails to the city council, which has no authority over the airport, instead of to the Norfolk Airport Authority, which does. . . . The Virginian-Pilot won the battle with the FBI in its fight for records related to the deaths of two agents during training exercises in Virginia Beach, but it may have lost the war. A federal district court agreed that the FBI violated federal FOIA by failing to perform an adequate search for records and for not responding on time. Once searched for and located, however, the records were properly withheld from disclosure. The Pilot is nonetheless eligible for attorney fees. . . . The Hanover County Board of Supervisors told their legislators that they’d like to see legislation in the 2016 General Assembly session that addresses access to police body-worn camera footage. In particular, the board said it wanted to be able to withhold footage to protect citizens and their privacy. The county also wants to be exempt from certain record-retention requirements. . . . On one side of the Richmond City Council were five members who voted on a redevelopment plan project, despite the fact that the 11 p.m. vote was not on the agenda. On the other side were four who opposed the vote, more because of the process than because of the substance. Voting aye, Councilmember Ellen Robertson said the citizens would be glad to see the project moving forward. On the other hand, Councilmember Jonathan T. Baliles voted “hell no” and called the process a “travesty.” . . . Six months past the end of the last fiscal year, and embattled Portsmouth City Auditor Jesse Andre Thomas has not written an audit of the prior year. Instead, he says he is “piggybacking” off the prior year’s audit. According to the city’s audit plan, Thomas is one year behind on one audit and four months behind on another. . . . Attorneys for Liebherr Mining and Construction Equipment, who have obtained a declaratory judgement against two Chinese manufacturing companies they say stole designs to build a mining dump truck, asked the Newport News judge hearing the case to close the hearing on damages and seal the related documents. Circuit Court Judge Timothy S. Fisher said "the likelihood of me closing the hearing is pretty small," and suggested that one way to protect the trade secrets described in the documents was to not introduce so many of them. . . . Lynchburg Circuit Court Clerk Eugene Winfield received a $20,250 grant from the Library of Virginia Circuit Court Records Preservation Program to help digitize the 1,159 deed books in the clerk’s care. “My goal is that these records are around here forever,” Winfield told the News & Advance. . . . The New York Times reported that the Navy chose to use a closed disciplinary process that is typically used for minor infractions to review the actions of six Navy SEALS accused by soldiers of brutally beating detainees in Afghanistan. . . . Despite saying they have no legal basis to do so, officials at the Bureau of Financial Institutions denied the Center for Public Integrity’s request to access annual corporate reports filed with the state by the nation’s three major auto-title lenders. The lenders petitioned the bureau not to release the records, but BFI officials said they were “unaware of any statutory or other legal basis” for withholding the records. Nonetheless, BFI recommended the issue be taken up as part of the rule-making process and the records sequestered in the meantime.
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Virginia Coalition for Open Government
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