Sunshine Report for July 2019

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
July 2019
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Virginia's FOIA: full text
Many changes to Virginia's Freedom of Information go into effect Monday, July 1, including a provision creating new penalties for specific kinds of meetings and records violations.

VCOG has incorporated the changes into its full-text version of FOIA. 

Did you know VCOG has every past version of FOIA since 1999? Click on "Past Versions of FOIA" to explore.
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VCOG coalition building
In June, VCOG's Megan Rhyne was on hand with higher education advocates to watch the signing of a bill to require Virginia's public universities to take public comment before making a change to tuition pricing.

Later in the month, Rhyne met with delegates from central Asian nations and Israel to discuss open government principles.
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FOIA Council updates
In June, two FOIA Council subcommittees met to discuss bills referred by the 2019 General Assembly:
  • One bill would grant the State Forester "confidential" status for trade secrets, third-party reports of criminal violations and active administrative investigations. Subcommittee member Kathleen Dooley said she was convinced existing FOIA exemptions covered the material, but the department insisted it was given advice by the Attorney General's office that they didn't. The subcommittee asked staff to work on narrower language and asked that the assistant AG who gave the advice explain his/her position at a future subcommittee meeting.
  • The other bill was about donor records at public colleges/universities. The subcommittee endorsed a change to the current FOIA exemption to require disclosure of names, amounts given, etc. The exemption would allow for anonymous gifts, but not if they impose terms and conditions on academic decision-making. The subcommittee did not recommend the second part of the bill, which directs university foundations to create a contract of acceptance that will be shared with the university if a gift includes terms and conditions. The subcommittee acknowledged that the bill's patron, Del. David Bulova, and the university community could still pursue this section and that the full council might endorse an agreement the stakeholders reach.
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Open government
in the news
The legal imbroglio between the Town of Front Royal, Warren County, the joint economic development authority and its former director marched onward during June. Early in the month, the EDA's attorney claimed that a resolution used by the director to grant property purchase rights to a proposed business was a forgery. Two EDA board members said they did not remember signing the resolution, which stated that it had been passed "at a closed meeting." The resolution was also stamped "CONFIDENTIAL," which would have gone against EDA board practice. . . . Meanwhile, in his first meeting as interim mayor of Front Royal, Matt Tederick suggested the EDA be dissolved and a citizen commission be appointed to evaluate the town council, board of supervisors and the board. He added that the relationship between government and its citizens were frayed. Terderick took over from the former mayor, who stepped down after being indicted on charges of soliciting a prostitute. . . . Upon being nominated by Warren County supervisors for a spot on the EDA, Greg Harold said he would be open to citizens interviewing him as a signal of his commitment to promoting transparency. On the other hand, Harold also said it was proper for his interview with the board to be done privately: "This is a job," he said of the position on the board. "And just as everybody else's [interviews] it's a confidential process." It's not an election, he added.

Emails that The Tidewater News obtained from the City of Franklin via a Freedom of Information Act request on May 24 indicate that the city — or at least its former city manager — knew of security deficiencies in the city’s combined courts building since early 2016, yet took no action to obtain any written renovation estimates from architectural firms.

Some members of the Leesburg Town Council questioned the need for a closed meeting to discuss annexing the Joint Land Management Area it shares with Loudoun County. The council  held the meeting over the objections of two members that the council should first pursue talks with the county. . . . One of those opposing the closed meeting in Leesburg later found himself in a sticky situation when, instead of leaving his name off of three proclamations he did not agree with, as council procedures allow, he wrote out his objections on the proclamations themselves. Tom Dunn said his written sentiments on proclamations for National Gun Violence Awareness Day, LGBT Pride Month, and Juneteenth were meant as a signal to his fellow council members who he believes are forcing their political views on the entire council. He later added just his signature to reprinted copies.

The City of Norfolk has not publicly disclosed an internal investigation of an incident at the city's community services board last yer where an "agitated" and "psychotic" man beat another CSB client into a coma in the office's lobby. Norfolk said it would release the report -- which absolves the agency of any negligence -- to The Virginian-Pilot for $34.96, but the newspaper obtained a copy through independent means.

The Radford Army Ammunition Plant was cited by OSHA for numerous “serious” violations following a flash fire that left one worker dead and two seriously injured last year. However, the contractor involved in the incident said it would not be releasing an investigation it conducted because it contained proprietary information. BAE Systems said it shared its findings with OSHA, but the Department of Labor had yet to respond to a FOIA request verifying the arsenal's account.

Members of the Berryville Town Council were baffled with the town mayor when she filed a FOIA request with the town manager to see records related to the development of a plaque to recognize veterans of the year. One colleague called the request "extreme" and The Winchester Star editorial page wondered why the mayor wouldn't "simply walk into any office and ask a few questions." The mayor, however, said she made the request because she believed she would get "broader" information."

A Richmond judge rejected the Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney's request to reconsider the judge's May 29 decision ordering Stoney to release records related to a proposal to redevelop the Richmond Coliseum and surrounding area. Asked by email if the mayor wishes he’d simply turned over the records, Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said the mayor had no regrets. The records were turned over to a local attorney, Paul Goldman, but additional documents that were not the subject of the lawsuit remain under wraps.

The Rappahannock County attorney indicated that a member of the board of supervisors did not have a "right to payment" for the money he spent on two Fairfax County attorneys. The supervisor retained the attorneys to advise him in an ongoing FOIA lawsuit known locally as Bragg I. The county attorney pointed out that the supervisor was not a party to Bragg I. He also noted that the two attorneys hired to represent two supervisors who were named as parties in Bragg I charged no more than $175 per hour, compared with the Fairfax attorneys' rates of $350 per hour and $400 per hour for a total of $19.365, nearly the same amount the county's attorneys have charged over a 20-month period.

James City County is launching a new FOIA system that will allow people to make FOIA requests, monitor data collection by county staff, pay for the request and receive the request all at one online portal. Requesters can still submit requests by phone, email, mail and fax.

In seeking citizens interested in serving as an interim council member until the November election, the Manassas City Council said it would conduct public interviews.

Winchester City Council members shelved a proposed set of bylaws that would have prohibited council members from sharing information with the media regarding discussions held during executive sessions, authorized the city manager to open and read all correspondence sent to the mayor, and required that the city manager be copied on all citizen requests submitted to council members.

The Supreme Court of Virginia announced that it would provide free access to unannotated versions of its model jury instructions on its website, however, annotated versions of the instructions would be sold by a vendor for $359 for the civil law instructions and $470 for the criminal law instructions. The announcement came amid discussion nationally about free access to state laws and court decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed June 24 to consider whether the state of Georgia can assert copyright in its annotated state code.

A member of the Suffolk School board claimed she was being retaliated against for speaking out about open meeting violations on school board committees. She noted that some committees are made up of only two people and that meetings between the two have not been held in public. The member noted that she was handed a five-page document at a May meeting outlining her violation of board norms and protocols, including not using social media and requiring board members who ask for information that will take longer than 60 minutes to research to first get the permission of the entire board. Sherri Story said she had retained a lawyer, who handled a similar case in Portsmouth, to represent her.

That same lawyer, Kevin Martingayle, is also representing the husband of one of the Virginia Beach employees killed by gunman and former colleague DeWayne Craddock. The widower and families of other victims say they want the city to release more records about Craddock besides the two-page resignation letter the city released in early June. The city has resisted releasing more until an investigation can be completed, and it pushed back on what it called "rumors, innuendo, conflicting theories and speculation." The city also gave its opinion that the death of Craddock did not negate the city's ability to invoke the personnel exemption to withhold his employment records.
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Media awards
VCOG is pleased to announce its 2019 media FOIA awards lunch. Click here for details on submissions (deadline is Aug. 1) and criteria.
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Annual Report
Get all the details on our work this past year in our online annual report. Contact us for a print copy.

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• What's behind increasing FOIA charges? Email has a lot to do with it. 

• FOIA is not supposed to be adversarial, even among elected officials.

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Office supply list on Smile.Amazon

You know what's as valuable as your membership dues and donations? Office supplies! We've created a list of everyday office supplies (and a few wish-list items) on Amazon Smile. Next time you're shopping on, find VCOG's "charity list" and keep us rolling in paper and ink (and stamps, and file folders, and...).

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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