Sunshine Report for June 2019

 

 

 

 


 
 
Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
June 2019
 
 
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Millions of Messages
The Library of Virginia gave a public presentation in May on what goes into reviewing, archiving and releasing records of Virginia's governors. Susan Gray Eakin Page and Roger Christman let the audience in on the huge volume of records -- mostly in the form of email -- it is tasked with sorting through: literally millions of messages. The messages have to be reviewed to determine if some material is required by law to be withheld and what can be disclosed. The task has been made somewhat easier than it was in the days when they had to look at every message. Now, they're using an artificial intelligence tool provided by researchers at the University of Waterloo to weed out public from non-public records.  But they still have messages from the Kaine administration to process, not to mention the McDonnell administration's records and those of the McAuliffe administration. Two bills introduced in the 2019 General Assembly would have required the Library to release gubernatorial records within a year of receiving them. The only way that will happen, said Page and Christman, is if funding is made available. In addition to the free AI tool, Page and Christman are paid through a federal program. The Library would need to hire additional staff to make a significant dent in the pile of records.

Read more about the presentation on the Virginia Mercury's website.


 
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FOIA Council
At its May 8 meeting, the FOIA Council divided up bills referred to it by the 2019 General Assembly for further study by council subcommittees.
  • The Forestry Records Subcommittee will study an exemption for trade secrets, financial information and other records held by the Department of Forestry during an investigation.
  • The Donor Records Subcommittee will study whether to open up some of the information on donations made to higher education foundations.
  • The Phishing Study Subcommittee will study the threat (if any) of phishing attacks using information obtained through FOIA.
For subcommittee membership and meeting times, though none have yet been announced, click here.

The full council next meets June 17 and Sept. 18. Both meetings are at 1 p.m. at the Pocahontas Building.
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Open government
in the news
A Richmond Circuit judge ordered the city's mayor to release a portion of the $1.4 billion Coliseum redevelopment plan and other records to Paul Goldman. The judge rejected the city's argument that release of the plan would hurt the city's bargaining position. The judge also said the city did not provide any evidence to justify withholding records from Goldman that it had previously released to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The city charged Goldman $1,749 more than it charged the paper for the same records, saying more extensive review was needed because some records were released to the paper in error.

A Charlottesville Circuit Judge gave the Virginia State Police 30 days to release a redacted copy of the operational plan it had in place for the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally. The judge threw the police a bit of a bone, though, when he said he'd allow the agency to delete portions of the plan that could be redacted, ather than blacking out the portions. The judge agreed with the police that revealing just how much was being redacted could create a safety risk.

Prince George citizens were left flat-footed when, during a specially called meeting, just a week after announcing the retirement of the school division's superintendent, the board named a successor without any advance notice, discussion or input. Focusing on the qualifications of the successor, the school board chair said the  process they used "saves money and time" and was "win-win for everybody."

Hundreds of emails obtained via FOIA by the Washington Business Journal confirmed what many already suspected: Arlington County worked closely with Amazon during the rollout of the HQ2 deal to coordinate what information would be released to the public and how.

Using FOIA, the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project obtained data on 27,432 field interview reports over a 21-month period. The data showed blacks are far more likely to be stopped and questioned than whites are. The city's interim police chief attributed the disparity to inconsistent record-taking more than inconsistent policing. 

The Commissioner of the Department of Social Services cited the attorney-client privilege to withhold disclosure of a $44,487 investigative report prompted by allegations of bullying at the agency's headquarters. The commissioner would not verify whether he adopted any or all of the investigation's findings, conclusions or recommendations.

The Front Royal town attorney said the town is likely to file litigation against the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority because the town’s FOIA request seeking the findings of a forensic audit into the EDA’s finances was denied. The EDA's attorney cited exemptions for criminal investigative files, attorney work product and attorney-client privilege.

After obtaining the Charlottesville police chief's appointment calendar via FOIA, a Daily Progress reporter determined that there were several openings for the chief to meet with the Police Civilian Review Board, even though the chief's assistant insisted that the chief was unavailable. The city said a separate request for the chief's emails would cost $3,000 but refused to explain what charges made up that estimate. (VCOG wrote a letter to the city attorney asking that charges be broken down upon request so that citizen can determine whether the charge appears reasonable and reflective of the actual cost to the government.)

Several clerks of court have been at odds with the Office of Executive Secretary (the court system's administrative arm) over how to handle electronic case records in civil lawsuits. The OES wants a statewide system, while the clerks want to be able to shop for their own system tailored to their particular needs.

Augusta County citizens concerned about an economic development deal to sell Seawright Spring to Flow Alkaline Spring Water received emails in response to a FOIA request that showed several instances where keeping information from the media and the public was discussed by state officials.

A public forum on school issues set up in Bristol by Virginia Organizing wasn't what the group hoped it would be when the nine city council members and school board members in attendance remained silent throughout. Though FOIA allows members of a public body to attend a public forum without triggering FOIA, the city manager advised the public officials that they would be breaking the law if they spoke.

The 22-year-old daughter of the Richmond chief administrative officer was hired by the Department of Public Utilities at a rate of pay higher than all but three city employees with the same title, and all of whom have worked for the city longer. She is also being paid 46% more than her predecessor. The city's nepotism policy does not apply unless someone is in the direct line of supervision for a family member.

The Martinsville Bulletin confirmed through records obtained by FOIA that the Henry County sheriff intentionally hid the reason behind his called press conference to gin up more media coverage of what was, ultimately, his announcement that he was seeking reelection.

A judge in Rappahannock County set a trial date of Feb. 20, 2020, for the case known as Bragg 1, where a citizen alleges the county board of supervisors held an improperly called closed meeting. The case was originally filed in 2016 and went up to the Virginia Supreme Court on a procedural issue. The 2020 trial will be on the merits of the citizen's claim.

The Hampton Roads Regional Jail superintendent said it was his fault that the public was not given proper notice under FOIA of the jail board's May meeting. He would not discuss details of the meeting, though, because issues were discussed in closed session. Officials who attended the meeting from Portsmouth and Norfolk disagreed, however, over exactly what staffing changes had been recommended. (VCOG wrote a letter to the jail asking that notice of upcoming meetings be put on their website, hrrj.org, as required by FOIA. The notice was added soon thereafter.)

After an hour-long closed meeting, Front Royal's vice mayor said the town council had approached six people to fill the mayor's seat, made vacant when the previous mayor resigned after being charged with soliciting prostitution. The vice mayor refused to say who the people were other than that none were sitting council members.

The Department of Corrections refused to release any records related to an inmate's escape from a worksite. The inmate was on the run for two days before being taken back into custody. The DOC said it had only two pages of related records and that they could be withheld as exempt records of inmate incarceration conditions.

Virginia Beach school officials vowed to be more transparent about who they would appoint to fill a board vacancy after a closed process led to the appointment of a retired firefighter who later withdrew from consideration when his social media posts that could be characterized as sexist and racist surfaced. 
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New awards program
Watch your inboxes for information on our upcoming awards luncheon recognizing excellent news reporting using public records and public meetings. Winners will be recognized at a fall luncheon in Richmond.

 
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Supreme Court rules
Read VCOG's take on the rules that will go into effect this month governing access to court administrative records.

"Supreme Court rules place thumb on scale for confidentiality"

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Updated filings
VCOG has updated the clearinghouse page of filings in the Transparent GMU v. George Mason case to include briefs from all parties, and amicus briefs from UVA's foundations and a higher ed business council.
 
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Supplies list

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 Smile.Amazon.com, 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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