Sunshine Report for March 2014

In this issue

FOIA to get makeover

General Assembly FOIA update

Sunshine Week 2014

Open government in the news

Coalition News

Recently on VCOG Blog

Director promoted
VCOG board president Craig Fifer has been named Acting Director of Communications and Public Information for the City of Alexandria. Fifer has been the deputy director since 2010 and has worked for the city since 2003.

Board meeting
The next meeting of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government Board of Directors is Friday, April 18, in Glen Allen.

Woodrum Legislative Internship
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.

Sunshine Week 2014
March 16: It's the date that we in the access community have rallied around as a milestone to our cause. It is the birthday of James Madison, who is considered to be the patron saint of open government. He is the one who famously stated, "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both."

Around the country, access advcoates and media alike will celebrate Madison and open government during Sunshine Week, March 16-22. Look for Sunshine Week events and stories in your community, or create your own: get ideas from

VCOG is currently looking into pairing up with the City of Williamsburg, the City of Newport News and the Richmond Times-Dispatch for a series of receptions, Twitter chats and/or op-ed opportunities. Stay tuned!!

(Speaking of Madison quotes, this ones comes to mind, too, as the 2014 General Assembly slowly winds down: "It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.")

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FOIA to get makeover after more than a decade

Gas was $1.22/gallon, Pete Sampras won Wimbledon, Haley Joel Osmet revealed that he saw dead people and Ricky Martin was living la vida loca. The year was 1999, and it was the last time Virginia's Freedom of Information Act got a hard look from top to bottom.

Back then, the act's 96 exemptions were listed in serial order: 70 in the records section, 26 under meetings. Chip Woodrum was the driving force behind the review then, and he patroned the bill codifying the review's recommendations on the House side, while then-Senator Bill Bolling carried it in the Senate. Among the many improvements to the law, the bill created the FOIA Council, which still serves as an authoritative source on FOIA 14 years after it went online in 2000.

In 2014, the exemptions have been blessedly arranged into categories, but there are now 127 records exemptions and 45 meetings ones, for a total of 172, and that doesn't even count the criminal records section or the expansions to the  exemptions that existed in 1999 and ones added subsequently.

In short: the act is bloated and filled with outdated and unnecessary exemptions that should be culled, narrowed and tightened.

And thanks to the passage of HJ96, there finally will be a real opportunity to do that. The joint resolution, sponsored by Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly), directs the FOIA Council to review the continued applicability or appropriateness of the existing exemptions and to "examine the organizational structure of FOIA and make recommendations to improve the readability and clarity" of the law. The resolution specifically directs the council to take input from a myriad of sources, first and foremost from "citizens of the Commonwealth."

VCOG will be participating in the study, and we plan to reach out to our members for their thoughts on what part(s) of FOIA need work. This is a long-range process -- the council has until Dec. 1, 2016, to issue its report -- so WATCH THIS SPACE!

Virginia General Assembly 2014

Both chambers passed a bill to provide some measure of openness and consistency to the State Corporation Commission's release of records. The bills place responsibility for records-release under the SCC's title -- though with the response-time limits of FOIA -- instead of under FOIA, which is what VCOG would have preferred. Still, it's the first time that access to the SCC's records have been codified in one place.

Both chambers also passed a requirement that state agencies post on their websites an explanation of the fees that can be charged for FOIA requests.

Two bills related to certain data held by the Department of Rail & Public Transportation was sent to the FOIA Council for study, despite ongoing efforts by the DRPT and the Virginia Press Association to work something out. They eventually agreed that the bill should be worked on over the coming year for possible reintroduction next year.

After much back and forth with local government, the patrons and represenatives from the press, the House and Senate both passed versions of a bill related to call-in participation to local government board meetings. The bill now requires the public body to state in the minutes why permission was not granted to participate remotely. It also requires local government to put into place a policy governing its standards for granting or denying remote participation and to apply that policy strictly and uniformly.

Open government in the news

After years of resistance, Chesterfield County’s Circuit Court clerk plans to put all criminal court information on the state’s searchable website for public view, leaving Henrico County as the last court in Virginia to block online access to public records....Personal information of hundreds of Fairfax County public school students was mistakenly posted on the school system’s website, exposing their student identification numbers, birth dates, home addresses and phone numbers in what parents described as a breach of privacy....The Virginia Department of Social Services refused to turn records over related to the date, time, location and amount of transactions processed last summer through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Officials with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service confirmed that disclosure was prohibited, as did Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring....Speaking of the attorney general, in late February, Herring announced he was assembling a review team to examine various office policies and procedures, including its handling of FOIA requests....After announcing in January that it would post audio of its oral arguments, the Virginia Supreme Court took another step toward transparency when it announced in February that it would also be posting its "unpublished" orders to the court's website....Officials from Shenandoah's board of supervisors and school board rangled over the cost of accessing salary data for school employees. The school board chair told a supervisor who requested the data under FOIA that it would cost $700. Neighboring counties reported that they provided the same data to newspapers for free....Officials in Richmond’s office of Planning and Development Review refused to provide access to copies of certificates of occupancy for two city elementary schools Wednesday after the person requesting the public records identified himself as a member of the media....FBI officials announced a campaign aimed at cracking down on public corruption in Northern Virginia. “The idea behind this is public awareness,” Tim Gallagher, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field, office said....Officials in Alexandria released the 911 recording of the moments before a local music teacher's shooting death. Soon after, someone from the city attorney's office said the release "was a mistake," and "it will not be released again."