Sunshine Report for January 2017

The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency News from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
January 2017

VCOG's annual conference

Conference4Meeting in the Grand Salon of James Madison’s Montpelier (bottom left), a record number of conference attendees learned about information about businesses in the hands of local and state governments (bottom right), about the practices and legal pitfalls of government social media use (top right), about proactive disclosure of government information, and about the scope of the legislative privilege in Virginia. A researcher from Montpelier also treated the audience to an appraisal of Madison’s lofty words regarding access to information and his less-than-lofty practice of secrecy as a statesman and politician.

Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech (top left, at left, with VCOG President Craig Fifer), the force behind the public records requests in Michigan that uncovered the extent of the Flint water crisis, was on hand to accept VCOG’s annual citizen’s award for open government, while your reporters, Sarah Kleiner and Katy Evans, winners of the media award, exhorted other reporters and editors to go after hard stories.

We had 40 corporate and individual sponsors, and we raised just over $8,500. THANK YOU!

Lawmaker's closed hearing leads to media challenge

The Virginian-PilotDaily Press and Smithfield Times joined together to appeal a judge’s order that the press be kept out of the hearing in juvenile and domestic relations court on the felony abuse charges against Del. Rick Morris of Suffolk. The judge barred the press but allowed in other members of the public. After Morris released a statement to the press detailing things that were said in the hearing, the papers also demanded release of the hearing’s transcript. Read more...


The 2017 General Assembly
session begins next week

Follow access-related legislation on VCOG's annual legislative chart and sign up for our "Sunshine Caucus," a roster of citizens willing to advocate for the public's right to know by calling or writing legislators, or even testifying at a committee meeting.

Assisting VCOG this session is Andrea Shaia, a recent graduate of the University of Mary Washington and this year's Chip Woodrum Legislative Intern. The internship has been made possible through donations to VCOG's endowment in the name of the late Chip Woodrum, open government's most vocal supporter as a delegate from Roanoke from 1980 to 2003.

FOIA & records management webinar

VCOG will present the second in a series of four webinars in partnership with Tidewater Community College on Jan. 4, from 9:30 a.m. to 12 noon.

The free webinar, geared towards government employees but open to all, will include training on both FOIA and records management. Glenn Smith, from the Library of Virginia, will conduct the records management training, while Megan Rhyne will take on the FOIA portion.

Just over 300 people are registered for the webinar. VCOG’s first webinar with TCC attracted more than 200 registrants, and plans are underway to offer training focused on law enforcement records in 2017.

New Executive Committee at VCOG

The VCOG board of directors elected new officers for the next two years: Dick Hammerstrom moved from vice president to president, replacing Craig Fifer. Paul Casalaspi moved from treasurer to vice president; Brian Eckert is now the treasurer, and Stephen Hayes will take the place of Olga Hernandez as board secretary. Fifer remains on the executive committee as immediate past president, replacing Dorothy Abernathy, who still remains on the board.

VCOG on the road

VCOG's executive director, Megan Rhyne, was one of a number of speakers to participate in the League of Women Voters' annual legislative preview. Rhyne discussed the upcoming FOIA revision bills that came out of the FOIA Council's three-year study. The two bills are being carried by the council's chair, Del. Jim LeMunyon, are HB1539 and HB1540.

Rhyne also gave a 30-minute presentation on FOIA's use by the legal profession to the Washington County Bar Association's December meeting via FaceTime.

Legislative committees
should be recorded

According to a review by the Daily Press, Virginia is not among the 41 states that broadcast audio or video from a least some of their legislature’s committee or subcommittee meetings. Virginia streams floor sessions of the full House of Delegates and Senate, but it does not archive them publicly. They are available for purchase on DVD, which technology activist Waldo Jaquith has been doing for years. He posts the videos for free to the website RichmondSunlight

The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page noted that streaming meetings would put legislators on the record, something needed since such a large percentage of the bills defeated during the session are killed without a recorded vote.

Open government in the news

Despite objections from two local officials, a joint meeting between the Washington County Board of Supervisors, the Virginia Highlands Airport Authority and two Abingdon Town Council members was held in closed session to discuss placement of a transmission line. Supervisor Vernon Smith asked that the meeting be held openly, since the public was already aware of the project, but he was outvoted 6-1.

Norfolk Treasurer Anthony Burfoot was convicted of six felony charges related to public corruption and perjury when he was still the city’s vice mayor.

A seven-week examination of 20 to 30 boxes discovered in the storage unit of a former Virginia Department of Veterans Services employee found 5,051 “personally identifiable” records of Virginia veterans, including nearly 700 benefit claims that went unfiled, were filed late or were missing key documents. 

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science has posted data its been collecting for decades about long-term fish abundance and diversity, water quality trends, seagrass beds and tidal marsh conditions of the Chesapeake Bay over time and added it to the state's Open Data Portal.

Several media outlets joined together to ask the judge in the defamation case against Rolling Stone to overturn a specific part of the jury verdict: that an editor’s note acknowledging problems with the story of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity counted as “republishing” the false statements. The media outlets argued that the ruling could prompt other publishers to stay silent if errors were found in future stories.

A Rappahannock County judge postponed a FOIA suit brought against the board of supervisors on behalf of a Sperryville llama farmer who alleges the board has engaged in a “pattern of nonobservance” of FOIA’s closed meeting regulations.

Developers pushing a proposal to build a sports arena in Virginia Beach lost a needed vote in October, but claimed in December that it had actually won. The developer said it had an opinion from the law firm McGuire Woods that said the Virginia Beach city attorney erred in insisting that the developer’s proposal required a supermajority of council votes to proceed. The developer said only a simple majority was needed.

The Mount Jackson Town Council held a revote to confirm the appointment of two men to the planning commission when the town attorney pointed out that the meeting where the original vote took place was rescheduled from 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. without giving notice to the public.

Records obtained through FOIA by the Associated Press showed the state is spending roughly 63 times more than what it paid last year for the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections in Virginia. A 2016 law makes the names of the drugs and the drug providers confidential.

For the last six months, Metro has been hosting monthly “meetups” for app developers to use service data to improve riders’ experience.

A judge in Williamsburg-James City County’s general district court ruled that former Williamsburg mayor, Clyde Haulman, was not guilty of assault and battery at a post-public meeting altercation with a local landlord and frequent critic of Haulman.

Critics of a decision by the Bath County Board of Supervisors to eliminate the position of local tourism director have now turned to a recall petition, where they allege the board improperly discussed the decision in closed session.

The ACLU of Virginia is asking the Virginia Supreme Court to overturn the  decision of a Fairfax judge that a license plate is not “personal information,” which would mean there was nothing preventing Fairfax police from collecting license plate data and retaining it for an unlimited amount of time.

The lawyer representing dozens of residents of a troubled Manassas mobile home park has subpoenaed city staff and officials to testify in a case against the park’s owner. “We need people to verify that the owner received [notices of leaking sewage], but did nothing,” the attorney said in an interview. “But because the council also discussed a lot of this in closed session before they decided to buy the park, we need them to testify about what happened there.”

After an extensive review of Department of Health Professions  inspection records, the News Leader in Staunton wrote about how the public had no easy way to find out if their local pharmacy or pharmacist had been cited for any violations. While the story was in the works, the department said it would change the way it notified the public. "In response to your inquiry, board staff has identified an ability through its licensing software to indicate 'probation' as an 'action' which is now visible when searching case decisions,” wrote a department spokesperson.

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