Sunshine Report for July 2013


The Sunshine Report: Online Transparency news from the Virginia Coalition
for Open Government   July 2013  

In this issue

The Chip Woodrum Legislative Internship

"How Many Clicks?" follow-up

Virginia Ports Authority's bad month

CHP contradictions

Open government in the news

Coalition News

Recently on VCOG Blog

Hammer honored
The Society of Professional Journalists, Virginia Pro Chapter honored a leading journalist during the 2013 George Mason Award Banquet Tuesday, June 18 at the University of Richmond. Dick Hammerstrom ofThe Free Lance-Star received the George Mason Award for his relentless efforts in the arena of freedom of information. Hammerstrom is vice president of the VCOG Board of Directors.

Farewell to a director
With regret, VCOG is bidding farewell to longtime board member Tom Moncure, Vice President and Counsel at George Mason University. A one-time FOIA Council member, Counsel to two attorneys general, a General Assembly Delegate and a Clerk of Court, Tom brought a wealth of experience in government to VCOG's board, lending both practical, legal and policy-related insights. VCOG is richer for having had Tom as a board member.

Next VCOG meeting
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government's Board of Directors will meet Aug. 1 in Charlottesville.

FOIA car magnets
VCOG FOIA magnets are available for $5 on VCOG's website. It's also easy to add a VCOG membership to your purchase. Once you have your magnet in place, post a picture of it to VCOG's Facebook page, or attach it to a tweet with the hashtag #vaFOIA. 

Stay up to date on access
Sign up for VCOG's daily listserv on access and First Amendment news from Virginia and accross the country. It's free!

For a steady stream of access-related stories and additional commentary and information, join the more than 800 people who are following VCOG on Twitter.

FOIA & the ports

It was a tough June for the Virginia Port Authority, at least as far as transparency is concerned.

It started in late Maywhen the VPA board got caught flat-footed with the revelation that it had been paying an outside lobbyist to shape legislation in Washington. Then came questions about whether state law allowsthat kind of expenditure.

Within days of the story, the government relations manager for Washington and Richmond resigned,though everyone insisted the departure was unrelated to the story. The Daily Press thenobtained documents through FOIA that detailed the lobbying agreement.

Next came an opinion issued by the Freedom of Information Advisory Council saying VPA should have turned over a severance package given to the departing executive director in October 2012 and requested by a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot. The FOIA Council said the records were not employee-dispute records that could be withheld but were, instead, payment and accounting records.

Chastened, the VPA released the records on June 28 and it was reported that VPA paid the ex-director $350,000 in severance, equal to a year's pay.

"I wish they could have seen the wisdom of earlier arguments, but I'm glad they agreed with the FOA Council," said VCOG Executive Director Megan Rhyne. 

Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

The Chip Woodrum Legislative Internship at VCOG

He was known in the House of Delegates for his wit, his wisdom and his intellect.

He was known for his passion for service.

He was known for his unwavering commitment to open government.

Now, may he be known to others through the Chip Woodrum Legislative Internship at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Join us in celebrating the legacy of Chip Woodrum by being a part of our effort to endow a student internship for each General Assembly session, where the recipient would learn about and participate in the legislative process.

Please keep Chip’s memory alive in our hearts and minds, and in the minds of future generations of leaders.

Give today.

Look who is on the steering committee for this effort, and which lawmakers are supporting it, too.

"How Many Clicks?" survey prompts feedback, change

At the start of 2013, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government released its survey of city and county budgets online called “How Many Clicks to Get to Your Budget?”

Based on the 2012 local budget cycle, the survey measured how easy it was for a citizen to find a locality’s current fiscal year budget on the locality’s website and how easy it was to use and understand that budget document.

At least 37 print and broadcast news outlets covered the story, from Wise County to Norfolk, Northern Virginia to Halifax and everywhere in between.

There were a couple of missteps along the way, but mostly the results prompted change. At least two dozen localities contacted VCOG to share ideas and ask for help.

Read more about the survey's results and impact.

CHP contradictions

The Republican Party of Virginia (RPV) stunned many of Virginia's clerks of court when it sent requests to all of them asking for a "list" of concealed hangun permit (CHP) holders in their possession.

"Disclosure of this information is likely to be in the public interest and is not for commercial activities or public posting," wrote RPV executive director Anthony Reedy.

The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to access to records required by law to be held by clerks, prompting the clerks to respond in a number of different ways. Richard Francis of Franklin and Southampton County said that he did not maintain a list of CHP holders. He also said that because the 2013 legislature passed SB1335, banning access to CHPs, it was his "personal belief that it would be improper" to release them, even though the law had not yet gone into effect. (Read our take and Francis' letter here.)

Jack Kennedy of Wise asked the Attorney General to issue an opinion, noting that it would likely take more than three weeks to complete the request, at which time the new law would go into effect.

Ultimately, Reedy withdrew his requests, explaining that the cost would make it impossible for the party to go forward with what he termed its voter education effort. (Note: VCOG has always maintained that access to CHP data was useful for contacting holders for educational and advocacy purposes.)

Open government in the news

After Prince William County supervisors vehemently rejected a new county logo, and then hearing that perhaps thousands of dollars had been spent on it, one supervisor filed a FOIA request for records about it. When he was informed of a potential charge to receive the records, his wife launched an email  decrying the charge and asking for donations to her husband's reelection campaign (read our take)....Two Richmond School Board members nearly came to blows after emerging from a closed meeting where one told the other to shut up. When Kim Gray later told Tichi Pinkney Eppes not to talk to her like that again, Eppes said she felt threatened and the two had to be separated. Asked about the event, it was Eppes who admitted, "I said I'd whoop her ass."....Changing years of an informal process of asking orally for search warrants, a Hampton magistrate started requiring police officers to put their complaints  in writing....Virginia Beach unveiled a new smartphone app to help drivers pay on-street parking meters from their phones....The Lynchburg School Board interviewed candidates for a board vacancy in closed session. However, the board recorded the interview and released a copy of it after making its selection....Reporters were denied access to a dinner attended by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors dinner, the county administrator, more than 20 judges, the commonwealth's attorney, the county attorney and the sheriff. A county spokesman insisted that the gathering was "100 percent a social event" and that public business was not discussed.