Sunshine Report for March 2016


The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency news from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
March 2016

VCOG notes

Ginger Stanley, the longtime director of the Virginia Press Association and a founding director of VCOG has announced her retirement, effective at the end of June. Stanley has been an ex officio member of VCOG’s board since its founding in 1996. Under her leadership, the press association donated office space to VCOG for many years, and has always maintained an open-door policy for VCOG when it has sought space for conferences, meetings and other events.  The press association has always done the heavy lifting during the legislature — meeting with various stakeholders to iron out differences and offer redrafted solutions — and Ginger has always been accessible to me for guidance on the day-to-day business of lobbying. Her presence at the General Assembly will be missed by many, though perhaps by none more than I.

Thank you!

The press’ coverage of SB 552 — the police name bill — was critical, I believe, to its defeat. The stories put it on people’s radar and made it real to people in a way it might not have been if it was just the usual suspects (me) pushing the message out.

Thank you to them!

And thank you, too, to who I consider the REAL heroes of that bill’s defeat, as well as the other two we were most adamant about, and that is our members and supporters.

At least a half dozen (it could’ve been more, but I was only copied on a six messages) of our citizen members contacted the subcommittee members to oppose the bills. 

At subcommittee, half of the people who spoke out against the bill were individuals who took time out from their day and their job to make their voices heard at the General Assembly. I wholeheartedly believe they made a difference.

So, to Barb Brown, Gary Grant, Wally Bunker, Robert Weir, John Aguiar, Gary Harki, Andrew Bodoh, Mark Hjelm, Jon Russell, Dave Briggman and others. THANK YOU!!!

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This session. THIS session!

IMG_2063This session. I mean it. This session!
It’s been a crazy, unexpected and wild ride. And while I may need a little perspective before I can accurately characterize the session, my initial impression is that it has been a mostly positive one for transparency in state and local government.
There were many good bills introduced this session by a wide variety of people from across the political spectrum. There were a couple of really awful bills, but they were far and few between. Ten years ago we sometimes stuggled to get our message across in the House subcommittee with more luck in the Senate. This year, the House FOIA subcommittee was ON IT. They asked all the right questions and listened carefully to the sometimes arduous testimony. The bills didn't always go our way, but it's always a consolation when you leave feeling you were given a good shake.
First, the good bills that have passed (or are well on their way to passage): keep reading about the bills we tracked, go to our website.

Open government in the news

A general district judge in the area of Powhatan, Dinwiddie, Amelia and Nottoway Counties, as well as the City of Petersburg, returned to the bench in early February after an unexplained 3-month absence. The Richmond Times-Dispatch obtained copies of letters the judge wrote to four clerks in the localities where he presided to apologize for his “offensive conduct and statements” and described his behavior over the past year as “inexcusable.” No one has stated exactly what the judge did. . . . A Richmond firefighter sued the city, saying his FOIA requests were ignored. After Tony Wells filed his suit, the city responded, and either turned over the records or invoked an exemption. A Richmond general distirct judge declined to fine the city for the errors, but did include a passage in the letter ruling stating, “Mr. Wills’ action deserve the commendation of his fellow citizens. The purpose of FOIA is transparency in government and holding ‘Leviathan’ accountable. Mr. Wells has attempted to vindicate these purposes.” . . . The City of Charlottesville adopted new public comment regulations that riled some citizens. In addition to changing the first-come, first-served sign-up  procedures for those wanting to speak to a lottery system, the new rules would also allow citizens who disrupt a meeting to be banned from future meetings. . .  A few months ago, the Martinsville City Council changed its policy for televising public comments because they said citizens did not want to be on TV. But in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, the video feed is cut for public comments because they say too many people want to grandstand for TV. . . . When the treasurer and finance director for the Town of Culpeper resigned, the town unsurprisingly refused to release her resignation letter, saying it was a personnel record. However, the town also refused to provide the date on her resignation letter. The town’s human resources director said it was “part of the confidential personnel file.” The Progress-Index conducted a mini-audit of FOIA compliance in the Petersburg area, requesting basic public records from local governments, school divisions and police departments. Compliance was spotty, but the paper took into account the fact that the heavy snows of January fell during the time their requests were pending. There were some notable exceptions, including the public information officer at the Petersburg Bureau of Police telling a reporter, “We’re not going to honor that, we don’t even have to honor that,” when asked to release felony arrests, something FOIA says is an open record. . . . The judge hearing the case between the Daily Press and the Office of Executive Secretary over access to the database of court information ruled the OES was not the custodian of the records, even though the office has physical control over it. Instead, the data in the database belongs to the state’s clerks of court, who are responsible for uploading and maintaining it, the judge said. . . . Franklin County and the Preserve Franklin group finally reached a settlement regarding a months-old FOIA request. The group agreed to pay $400 in exchange for narrowing its request from the far-ranging one they earlier filed and which the county said would cost $4,800 to process. The group presented the county with an oversized mock check at a board of supervisors meeting, though the council members declined an invitation to snap pictures with the group and the check. . . . Search warrants executed by police in the death of Nicole Lovell were sealed by a judge. The judge said they could not be public because the investigation into the evidence against the suspects — two Virginia Tech students — was ongoing. . . . An uproar over a women’s rights group’s display at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library last April has resulted in a more open policy for future displays. Some thought the library’s trustees would devise a stricter policy, but the new policy now says the content of the displays will be “unfettered” as long as it does not include defamatory or obscene materials that are not protected under federal guidelines. Material that could “lead to a breach of peace” or that advocates criminal activity also is prohibited. . . . Portsmouth City Councilman Danny Meeks last month signed off on the imposition of a $1,500 fine against fellow councilman Bill Moody for saying a closed meeting would be held. This month it was Meeks who found himself fined for talking to a newspaper reporter about information shared during a closed meeting. There was no formal vote to fine Meeks, only a letter signed by four council members that was circulated earlier. . . . Portsmouth City Councilman Mark Whitaker refused to certify that a closed meeting stuck to the topics identified in the motion to close the meetings. He said the council’s discussion of the city’s sick leave policy, and the possible financial losses to the city over its implementation, were subjects that should have been discussed publicly. . . . A James City County parent filed an affidavit against the Williamsburg-James City School division after the school board voted to appoint a former school board member back to the board to fill an empty suit. The parent said he was led to believe that the entire meeting was going to be closed-door interviews and that no votes were going to be taken. The agenda did list only the closed session, but a public meeting was convened prior to the closed session as the law requires. . . . As reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a police report obtained through by the William & Mary student newspaper showed that the college waited 12 days to report a lost set of master keys to the police.
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