Sunshine Report for June 2017

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

9Help us help you

June marks the last month of VCOG's fiscal year. Though individual gifts and donations are right where they should be, membership renewals in all categories are lagging. So PLEASE! If you are reading this and you (a) haven't renewed your membership in VCOG for more than a year, or (b) you have used any of VCOG's services (including this newsletter!) but haven't joined or donated, go to VCOG's website and join/renew/donate RIGHT NOW! Your membership and donations are 100% tax deductible and directly support the many services and activities VCOG provides every day.   or

Lights, camera, govern!

4620958131_be0bc64551_bNow that the General Assembly Building is slated for demolition, and the Pocahontas Building is being prepared to serve as the legislature’s home while a new building is constructed, the House and Senate have announced plans to begin recording committee meetings. The Senate says it will prepare one meeting room in the Capitol and another in the Pocahontas Building to livestream committee meetings. The House followed up with a general statement that it would livestream its committee meetings, but it did not detail how. Neither the Senate nor House announcements mentioned coverage of subcommittee meetings.

Past legislative attempts to require meeting recordings have been quickly shot down, usually on the argument that it would cost too much to wire the buildings, and because internal wiring would require tearing up walls in the old GAB that contain asbestos. The liberal advocacy group Progress Virginia, however, demonstrated this past session that webcasting meetings can be done on some level both cheaply and easily. Volunteers from the group recorded meetings during the 2017 session with smart phones and plug-in microphones, and it would not take a great deal of additional. The recordings were broadcast on a website and archived there. 
The quality of the recordings can increase with minimal additional funds.

The volunteer group Transparency Virginia has noted in its past reports how streaming meetings and floor sessions helps citizens, advocates and lobbyists keep track of legislation they are interested in.

In March, 85 members of the House and Senate signed a letter urging committee meeting audio and video.

Fresh from VCOG’s Truth in the Field Blog  

  • Government agencies' denials for public records are a common experience among those requesting access. Shelley Kimball, the editor of Truth in the Field, and Robert Holloway, an open government activist in York County, discussed what it is like to be denied access and how best to respond.
  • Cherise Newsome used to be the one filing FOIA requests as a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot. Today she fills the requests for the Portsmouth school division. Read her tips for requesters and government.
​Read both on VCOG's Truth in the Field Blog.

VCOG's summer fellowship

Welcome to Sarah Silberman, this summer’s Laurence E. Richardson Legal Fellow. Sarah hails from Gainesville, Florida. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University and is currently a rising 2nd-year law student at William & Mary. She will be working on issues related to meeting minutes. The Richardson fellowship is named after VCOG founding board member Laurence Richardson, a Charlottesville-area broadcaster who died in 1999. Richardson’s children endowed the fellowship in 2006.


VCOG’s next annual conference will be Nov. 16 at the Richmond Times-Dispatch building. Many thanks to the RTD’s publisher, Tom Silvestri, and managing editor, Paige Mudd, for hosting!

At the FOIA Council

mariasmileAt its May meeting, the members of the FOIA Council celebrated the council’s first and only executive director since it began on the eve of her retirement. Maria Everett will retire in August, though her unofficial last day will be at the beginning of July. Jessica Budd, who has been a staff attorney to the council since the fall, will succeed Everett. Alan Gernhardt, the council’s senior attorney, will remain on board.

The council agreed to have its subcommittees look into bills referred to the council by the General Assembly: one having to do with public comment periods and one having to do with telephone meetings. Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, was also on hand to discuss his bill, which requires state agencies to respond to requests for information made by members of the General Assembly. Though the bill is outside the scope of FOIA, VCOG expressed concerns about creating an expectation that elected officials will have access to unredacted records that is above what anyone else in the state has (see the Prince William schools story, at right). The council also heard progress updates on the work of the subcommittee studying a revision to the exemptions that protect trade secrets and proprietary information.


Open government in the news

Fingers pointed among members of the Washington County Board of Supervisors, the Abingdon Town Council and the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator over access to the incubator’s records. The incubator says it’s given some records to Supervisor Vernon Kelly but has withheld others as either too old or confidential. The parties disagree, too, over whether the incubator is even subject to FOIA. Complicating matters is the fact that the incubator’s executive director is also the mayor of Abingdon.

Ryan Sawyers, chair of the Prince William County School Board, has sued the school superintendent over what Sawyers views as his unfettered right to access the emails of his predecessor. Steven L. Walts, the superintendent, agrees that Sawyers could have access to the emails, but he has asked Sawyers to ask for them through FOIA, where records can be reviewed and possibly withheld or reacted. Sawyers has said redaction would cover the very information — such as legal advice — that he is interested in.

Though a rogue supervisor bullied employees and improperly shredded documents, a grand jury declined to issue charges against the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services.

According to Governing magazine and website, the City of Roanoke is “doing something right,” considering the city of 90,000 has 180,000 followers on Facebook. Roanoke, the columnist Ron Littlefield writes, has “moved on from the tired, old ways of engaging citizens” and is “interpreting the new language and protocols of mass communication and employing public interaction in useful ways applicable to all cities.”

Five months after the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors commenced their 2017 term and the group still cannot decide who is the body's chair. One supervisor, Conrad Helsley, the 2016 chair, says he is still the chair because they couldn't agree on a replacement at their first organizational meeting of the year, but three members of the board say another supervisor, Richard Walker, is. That is because the three members voted to make Walker the chair at the end of a budget work session with the school board, a meeting Helsley did not attend. The county attorney has said the work session vote was illegal; another supervisor has said the vote was OK and suggested the attorney should resign because he is “partisan.”

Judge Louis R. Lerner ruled in mid-May that Suffolk Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Robert S. Brewbaker Jr. was wrong to close the 7-hour preliminary hearing on the charges of child cruelty being considered against Del. Rick Morris, R-Suffolk. Lerner allowed the public to attend the hearing, but not the media. Brewbaker “was wrong procedurally,” Lerner said, “but not substantively.” Brewbaker did not give the media a chance to object to the courtroom closure in advance, nor did he elaborate on why closure was necessary. Lerner ordered that a transcript of the hearing be made available to the Daily PressVirginian-Pilot and The Smithfield Times.

Three groups of 7th grade students reached three different conclusions in mock city council exercises at Bristol City Hall. Groups were further divided into council members and staff and worked off a mock agenda following meeting procedures.

When a pick-up truck and a Loudoun County Public Schools bus crashed in early May, the school division said that day that the bus was “at a full stop” at the time. Public records showed otherwise. A crash report issued by the county sheriff’s office said that both vehicles were moving at the time.

The Richmond City Council urged city finance officials to reveal the name of the business the department said was likely manipulating the city’s tax refund policy in order to make a profit. The finance department refused to name names, citing the Tax Code provision making it a misdemeanor to release tax information on individual taxpayers.

A FOIA of FOIA requests filed in area localities led to the Daily Press’s conclusion that, perhaps contrary to some people’s belief, the predominant users of FOIA tend to be attorneys, consultants, research firms and journalists, not citizens.

Gloucester County announced that starting June 1, conversations between staff and members of the public, both in person and over the phone, will be recorded. County Administrator Brent Fedors said the recordings would result in more polite interactions and less time reviewing complaints of “he said, she said” incidents.

The Office of State Inspector General said calls reporting fraud, waste and abuse in government were up significantly during the third quarter of this fiscal year and that these calls prompted a “significant increase” in agency investigations. There were 462 calls in the quarter spanning January through March, compared to 193 calls from October through December.

A Smyth County judge sided with the county board of supervisors in a FOIA suit brought by Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library. Friends alleged the board held an improper closed meeting to discuss the dissolution of the regional library. The judge said the discussions could have been held privately under the exemption for actual or probable litigation.


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!


If you find VCOG's services and resources useful,
We need your support!
Your dues and/or donations go straight
toward VCOG's modest operating budget
and are 100% tax deductible.

Our IRS W9 form can be found here,
and feel free to ask for copies of our most recent IRS 990 or financial review.




Click to view this email in a browser

If you no longer wish to receive these emails, please reply to this message with "Unsubscribe" in the subject line or simply click on the following link: Unsubscribe

Click here to forward this email to a friend

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
P.O. Box 2576
Williamsburg, Virginia 23187

Read the VerticalResponse marketing policy.

Try Email Marketing with VerticalResponse!