Sunshine Report for January 2019

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
January 2019
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Not all attorney bill entries are exempt, court rules
In a unanimous decision, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled the City of Virginia Beach was too heavy-handed in redacting all of the individual charges on a bill submitted by a law firm the city was using in an eminent domain lawsuit against a local dentist. 

At oral arguments, the city insisted the entries would reveal legal strategies in the case and were all exempt from disclosure.

The Supreme Court confidentially reviewed the unreacted billing statements and cited two entries in particular to illustrate why some redactions were "too broad." The court said it was "at a loss" for why an entry stating "[t]rial preparation and document review" and one saying "[a]ttend trial" would have ben shielded from disclosure.

The high court sent the case back to the circuit court with instructions to review  all entries "for disclosure of unreacted billing records" and to determine if an award of attorneys fees would be proper.

VCOG filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the dentist.

Read the full opinion on VCOG's website.
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2019 legislation:
what's on tap so far
Bills proposed for the 2019 legislative session began to trickle in during December. Early filings include a bill aimed at encouraging public officials to rely on opinions issued by the FOIA Council (HB 1772) and a FOIA exemption for the State Board of Elections when considering complaints of personal use of campaign funds (HB 1617 and HB 1699).

Four bills have been filed that -- in slightly different ways -- seek to hide the names of some Virginia Lottery winners (HB 1650, HB 1727SB 1060 and SB 1082). Proponents of the bills say they are needed to protect winners' safety, though they arrive in Richmond at the same time the lottery is investigating why several individuals across the state have won cash prizes at a statistically unlikely rate. The investigation was prompted by extensive reporting, based on records obtained through FOIA, by The Virginian-Pilot.

Also on offer is a bill to compel the Library of Virginia to release gubernatorial records within one year of the governor leaving office (HB 1702). State Librarian Sandra Treadway has said the library would love to be able to comply, but noted that the library's budget has been slashed over the past 10 years, and staff has been reduced by 38 percent.

Follow the bills that VCOG follows on our annual legislative bill chart.
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Open government
in the news
Following its detailed report of credit card use by Charlottesville City Council members, The Daily Progress reviewed the credit card policies (and whether members were even issued credit cards) in several Central Virginia localities.

Citing improved cybersecurity, the director of instructional technology for Campbell County Public Schools removed the email addresses for all district teachers and staff from the system's website, prompting a counterpart in Amherst County to remark, "[W]e are public figures and government employees, and we need to not hide information like email addresses and our names."

A former Roanoke city employee says the reason he told city council members that he could and would have them them shot is "because they don't pay attention." Robert Gravely said he understood why council members would be disturbed by his words, but he denied that what he said was a threat. He has been barred from attending city council meetings for the next several months.

Public records contradicted an assertion made by the Norfolk Community Services Board director following a fight at the CSB office that left one man in a coma. The records state that guards are expected to intervene in "altercations" between clients and in "all crimes," the opposite of what the director told The Virginian-Pilot in an interview after the incident.

After a Hopewell council member denied that he told the outgoing mayor that he would "put your ass in jail," and that the mayor's claim to the contrary was "an idiotic statement," The Progress-Index obtained a recording of the meeting and confirmed that the member made the comment. The P-I also used FOIA to obtain complaints filed with state election officials over the council member's campaign signs. The records showed that the complaints were made anonymously under a policy adopted earlier this year that allows complainants to request that their identity be withheld.

The chair of the Patrick County Board of Supervisors admitted he made a vulgar comment during a break in a contentious public meeting during which he traded barbs with a local EMT who hosts a controversial radio program. With the mics still recording, Lock Boyce dropped the F-bomb, and said he "killed better people with my bare hands than this." Later, he said he would have rephrased the statement if he knew he was being recorded.

Shortly after watching a presentation on FOIA and public meetings, the board of the New College Institute went into closed session but forgot to inform the Martinsville Bulletin reporter on the scene once they came out of that session.

The details of the agreement between Amazon and Virginia over the siting of one-half of the retailer's HQ2 continue to draw scrutiny. The unsuccessful proposals offered by other Virginia localities were released, showing promises of prime real estate, among other incentives. Many of the proposals were heavily redacted, though, on the ground that, "If [the Virginia Economic Development Partnership] were to receive a reputation as an organization that does not protect such proprietary information, businesses that may have sought to do business in the commonwealth may choose to bypass the commonwealth and to do business with a more discreet state or country," according to VEDP General Council Sandra Jones McNinch. Meanwhile, residents in Norther Virginia have been flocking to public meetings to find out how the plan will impact the area.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred over the government's emergency motion in a federal racketeering case against suspected gang members in Danville to prohibit the disclosure of witnesses' names to anyone outside the defense teams.

More than a month after Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced support for a $1.4 billion Richmond Coliseum redevelopment proposal, the mayor's office still would not release details of that proposal. The city claims the proposal is still subject to ongoing negotiations. Meanwhile, despite the mayor's objections, the Richmond City Council established a commission to vet the plans when they are released.

Fairfax police released a second video of the fatal shooting by U.S. Park Police of Bijan Ghaisar, an unarmed motorist. Fairfax earlier released one video of the incident but initially held back on the release of the second one, saying it was an exempt medical record. The faces of the officers and their vehicle license plates were redacted in both videos.

Sen. Rosalyn Dance told a Northern Virginia environmental advocate that he would not be allowed to participate in a public question-and-answer period with officials from Dominion Energy because the town hall meeting was for Dance to hear from her constituents. "This is not a free-for-all," she said.

The independent co-counsel to the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors informed the board that the meter was running on the two FOIA lawsuits filed by a local resident. The county has already spent over $100,000 on the cases, one of which went to the Virginia Supreme Court on a procedural issue that the county lost. "If there is any kind of consensus among board members or a desire to engage earnestly in settlement discussions the sooner the better," the attorney said.

A Bristol Herald Courier review of records obtained in the wake of the massive standstill on I-81 during mid-December's snow storm revealed that Bristol, Virginia, dispatchers were unable to contact Virginia State Police in Wytheville at times because the phone lines were overloaded with calls and that traffic did not seem to move in that area until city workers went out on ATVs to divert traffic.

Much of the video evidence presented during the trial of James Alex Fields Jr., including footage of Fields driving his car into a crowd of protesters during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, has been made available to view on a laptop at the Charlottesville courthouse.
FOI awards

VCOG is seeking nominations for its annual FOI awards.

Click here for more.

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2019 intern

VCOG is excited to be heading into the 2019 General Assembly with our fifth Chip Woodrum Legislative Intern, Leon Soria, a senior political science major at VCU. If you have stories about the late Chip Woodrum (and we know there are lots of them) please share them with Leon and me when you see us in the halls of the Capitol over the next few weeks.

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Annual conferernce: save the date!

VCOG's annual conference is APRIL 11 at Hampton University's Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

Stay tuned for more details.

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VCOG on the road

In December, VCOG's executive director, Megan Rhyne, finished up her class on tracking legislation and FOIA at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at William & Mary. She also taught a class on FOIA to University of Richmond journalism students and was one of two dozen presenters at the League of Women Voters of Virginia's annual legislative preview. This month, in addition to working on bills at the General Assembly, Megan will give a FOIA presentation to the Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services Board in Culpeper.

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VCOG board news

The publisher of and a member of VCOG's board of directors, Lou Emerson, and his wife have partnered with two philanthropists and another journalist to create the Fauquier Media Lab, a journalism "incubator" that they hope will help bring more reporters  and in-depth reporting to the area.

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VCOG launches FOI Slack channel

VCOG is rolling out a Slack channel for Virginia FOIA. Read our guidelines and join. Share your FOIA requests or discuss such topics as open meetings, fees, enforcement and datasets.

Click here to read our guidelines and join our Slack channel.

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VCOG is participating in the AmazonSmile program, where Amazon donates .5% of your order total to the charitable organization of your choice.

Click here to select VCOG as your AmazonSmile charity.
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VCOG is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. TIN 54-1810687
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