Sunshine Report for January 2022

General Assembly 2022

Only a handful of bills have been posted so far, -- no doubt hampered in part by the ransomware attack on state legislative agencies -- but VCOG will sure enough be roaming the halls of the Capitol come January 13, promoting good open-government bills and trying to stop bad ones. As always, VCOG's efforts are more impactful when media outlets report and editorialize on bills and when citizens offer testimony and/or reach out to their local legislators.

To keep track of legislation this year, VCOG will be using a new (to us) service called BillTrack50. We will still have our annual chart of bills, though it will look somewhat different this year. The links will take you to a summary page on BillTrack50, which then links to the bill on the Legislative Information Services website. This might sound problematic, but the BillTrack50 page for each bill contains the same information as what's on the LIS page, just presented differently. And, BillTrack50 will automatically update the status of bills on the chart. This was a manual task I would do (mostly) every night and was surprisingly time-consuming. BillTrack50 also offers opportunities for VCOG to create stakeholder pages for individual bills, set up legislator scorecards. Finally, citizens can set up their own account for the session to track any kind of legislation they want!

(Obligatory plug: BillTrack50 has provided all NFOIC members with free subscriptions to their Unlimited service.)NFOIC to move home base to Virginia

NFOIC to move home base to Virginia

VCOG is excited to report that starting in July 2022, it will become the administrative home of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit alliance that supports open government coalitions across the country.
 

NFOICfullLogo

The NFOIC Board unanimously voted Monday, Dec. 13, to award a three-year contract to pay VCOG $10,000 annually for administrative support services. NFOIC Board members expressed confidence in VCOG’s ability to provide quality and continuous support to the NFOIC, to NFOIC’s network of state and local member organizations, and to other stakeholders. The move is intended to provide operational stability for years to come, regardless of any possible changes to NFOIC funding or staff.  

VCOG's Megan Rhyne serves as the NFOIC board's secretary but she did not participate in any NFOIC discussions about the VCOG's proposal, nor did she vote on whether to accept the proposal.

Read NFOIC's press release for further details

 


Letters to incoming AG and legislative leaders urge transparency

VCOG submitted a letter to AG-elect Miyares making suggestions for how FOIA might be improved both internally and in the advice given to agencies.
Read the letter on VCOG's website

On behalf of Transparency Virginia, VCOG submitted a letter to the Speaker-designee and the 2022 majority and minority leadership in the House and Senate, as well as the clerks of both chambers, asking for continued improvements in legislative transparency.
Read the letter on the Transparency Virginia website


Anonymous credit card expenses!?

Knowing how much the government spends is pretty much the cornerstone of citizen oversight of government. But more than just what "the government" spends, it is important to know who within the government is spending what. If there's been excessive or unauthorized spending, you can't know who is responsible without a name attached to the expenditure. Without a name, you can't monitor whether individuals are spending public funds on cronies, friends or family members.

And yet, as reported by Patrick Wilson of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, some state agencies and the Office of Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia are removing the names from copies of credit card statements. Spurred on by a memo from its purchase card vendor (Bank of America), the state's comptroller took the position that copies of credit card statements requested under FOIA -- which are already redacted to remove account numbers -- should be further redacted to shield the name of the card user. A subsequent memo from the Department of Accounts even suggested answering a request for expenses in a way to neither confirm to deny that any individual actually has a card!

As you might imagine, I got pretty riled up about this. I mean, really? They are recommending an action based on the advice of a bank, despite there being no exemption in FOIA or elsewhere in the Virginia Code!?

I wasn't the only one. The FOIA officer for Fairfax County was pretty stunned, too. That's why she and I wrote an op-ed on VCOG's Substack newsletter jointly shaking our heads.

VCOG urges the department to immediately drop its practice and/or for legislators to take a stand to prohibit the practice.

- M.R.


Open Government in the News

Charlottesville's interim city manager withdrew from the position before he even started, saying, "There's just no way that an interim person can work underneath that craziness." Though the city council knew his intent on Nov. 21, no one mentioned it until a council meeting on Nov. 30. His departure is but the latest for a city that has experienced atypical turnover, according to Charles Hartgrove of the Virginia Institute of Government at UVA.

Exactly no one spoke up in favor or against a tuition increase proposed by the UVA Board of Visitors. Despite advertising the hearing in accordance with a state law passed a few years back, and despite offering in-person and online options for comment at both UVA and UVA-Wise, no one offered comment and the board ultimately approved the increase.

The Warren County School Board changed its rules for public participation in early December, eliminating the requirement for speakers to state their address prior to speaking, but adding a condition that out-of-county residents notify the division in advance if they want to speak. Speakers must now state whether or not they live in the county, are a parent of a student in the school division or are a school division employee.

A Suffolk Circuit Court judge ordered the city school board to pay $19,500 in attorney's fees to Deborah Wahlstrom in relation to her successful lawsuit against the board for refusing to let the public sit in the same room as the board members during a board retreat. The school board argued against the fees, saying any error "did not affect the substance of any action taken" by the board.

A Loudoun parent's FOIA request for records from the school division made national news because of the $36,000 price tag the school division said it would cost to provide the records. The county said a search yielded more than 100,000 "potential documents," which isn't quite so alarming when you consider that the request asked for all records containing the words "sexual assault" or "rape" over a five-month period in a district with roughly 12,000 employees. But the kicker was that the division also said it would take500 hours to review the records at a rate of $72.15 per hour! The division told a reporter that the division has been overwhelmed by FOIA requests in recent months, most of them related to policies on the school board's formation of policies on racial equity and transgender students. VCOG's Megan Rhyne noted that FOIA does not pick and choose among political ideologies that might prompt an increase in FOIA requests.

Portsmouth launched a twice-monthly podcast called "Let's Talk, Portsmouth." City officials say the podcast platform will allow guests to talk in detail about city businesses, services offered by various departments, and share success stories.

The Portsmouth City Council backed away from a vote on a candidate to become the city's next attorney, tabling it until the position can be readvertised. The move came after two council members expressed alarm at the leading candidate, a Norfolk attorney who was once charged with felony obstruction of justice in Norfolk Circuit Court for saying, outside a courtroom, about a man who testified against his client, “Let everybody in Young’s Park know he a [sic] snitch.” The council vote was postponed before what was expected to be a raucous public comment period, but after a council member who supported the candidate accused the others of being "more concerned about who we have as our attorney than our babies getting shot in the head.” Councilman Paul J. Battle reminded the audience, "This is Christmastime, and all of us should be filled with joy and laughter."

According to records obtained by WRIC through FOIA, Richmond has paid nearly $300,000 to people who filed lawsuits alleging police misconduct during the 2020 protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The superintendent of King William County Public Schools confirmed that no-trespassing notices had been issued against two individuals that would bar them from attending monthly school board meetings held on school property. The notices were issued over the individuals' refusal to wear masks during school board meetings.

While all other Northern Virginia jurisdictions provide free, remote public access to basic docket information for individual criminal and civil cases in circuit court, Fairfax County’s CPAN system costs $150 per quarter, or $600 per year, according to Inside NoVa.

The first two cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 were reported in mid-December, somewhere in Northwest Health Planning Region, a fact made known across the state. But, according to a spokesperson for the Blue Ridge Health District, it wa sunable to share cases by district level.

According to the Star-Tribune, the City of Danville’s Information Technology Department upgraded the city's website for exploring parcel maps and property information. The parcel viewer is faster, and it allows searches by owner name, parcel number, address, legal description, and zoning, as well as advanced search options such as sale date range, sale price, and land use/state use codes. Also, the new application provides the ability to switch to street-level imagery using Google Street View.

The vagaries of an expanded individual remote-participation system that VCOG warned against at the FOIA Council and in last year's General Assembly session were on display in Loudoun County when school board members argued over whether to allow a fellow member to continue participating remotely for medical reasons. The member says her Lyme disease and being immunocompromised has kept her from returning to in-person meetings, but fellow-members questioned why she would then attend another public event. The board eventually voted to allow the member to participate remotely using one of her personal matters exemptions. The personal matters option was increased last session from 2 times per year to up to 25% of the meetings per year, which for this school division means 13 of the board's 52 anticipated meetings.

Hampton Roads Ventures, a subsidiary of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, invested $250 million in projects around the country by the end of 2019, but just $35.2 million in Norfolk. NRHA has twice refused FOIA requests to release the complete financial records of Hampton Roads Ventures, claiming it receives no public funds.

A report prepared by the law firm Nixon Peabody found that Old Dominion University knew that visiting professor Blake Bailey sexually assaulted and harassed at least two women while working at the university and did nothing to hold him responsible. The report took note of an email confirming that a statement highly critical of Bailey's accusers had been seen by the university's president prior to its publication, even though the president publicly denied that he had.

The circuit courts in Rockingham County and Petersburg were both awarded grants by the Library of Virginia to digitize various historical records. In Rockingham, the grants will cover (among other things) judgment book over the period of 1787 to 1796, and multiple minute books that cover the years of 1817 to 1824, 1828 to 1830, 1872, 1875 and 1876. Deed books covering periods between 1790 and 1891 in Petersburg, will be digitized, plus books and an index of wills filed with the court between 1784 and 1944, and several maps and plat books.

A Pound Town Council member took the "kamikaze option" of resigning his seat in an attempt to force the local circuit court to make appointments to fill three open council seats. The member announced his surprise resignation during a Dec. 7 meeting where another member left before the completion of a council agenda that had been delayed from two earlier November meetings where the two also walked out early.

The vice mayor of the Warrenton Town Council stepped down from that position over misleading claims he made about the town government prior to the Warrenton Christmas Parade. He will stay on the council in an at-large seat.

The mayor of Warsaw walked back his comments from the previous month when he said the town's citizenry "have always been lazy." A lifelong Warsaw resident made an impassioned speech in which she said that many people do not come out to meetings because they "live in a world of schedules and when the agenda for meetings is only posted on Facebook four days before the meeting, it doesn't give people a lot of time to plan or check out the topics." She added that council members should respect citizens if they expect citizens to respect them. The mayor apologized and said, "I should not have said the word lazy and implied it the way I did. A better term would have been apathetic."

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