Sunshine Report for May 2014

The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency news from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
  May 2014

In this issue

Study to revise FOIA begins

Reocrds Management/FOIA workshop

Open government in the news

Hear's a thought

Coalition News

Recently on VCOG Blog

On the road...and around the state
VCOG Executive Director Megan Rhyne was a featured speaker at a conference of College Communicators Association of Virginia and D.C., April 7, in Virginia Beach.

Rhyne was also honored by Old Virginia Media Productions as the state's "Most Dedicated Government Watchdog."

To arrange a FOIA training session or speaking engagement with Rhyne, contact VCOG

Coalition News
VCOG founding board member Ginger Stanley, head of the Virginia Press Association, was named to the newly revived Commission on Civics Education. 

FracturedChipWoodrum 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. To date we have raised over $27,000. Won't you make a contribution today to keep Chip's memory and legacy alive?

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!

"Hear's" a thought...
With the decision now made to tear down the General Assembly Building and build a new home for Virginia's legislators -- their offices and their meeting rooms -- it's  time to install the needed wiring and technology to bring legislative accountability into the 21st century. At a minimum, the design should include microphones so people can actually hear what's being said at the discussion table. It should also include audio/visual equipment to either livestream committee meetings or record them for archiving and easy retrieval (preferably both). Citizens want to know what's going on, but most can't afford the time or money to travel to Richmond to witness the public's business in person. Provide some kind of option for them: wire the new General Assembly building for sound (and video)!

Goodbye, friend
It was with great sadness to the access community and more when the former director of the National FOI Coalition, Kenneth Bunting, passed away April 20 at his home in Columbia, Missouri, at the age of 65. Bunting, formely the editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was a consistently strong voice -- figuratively and literally -- for open government, and he was always willing to lend a hand to state coalitions. In 2012, Bunting was the featured speaker at VCOG's annual conference in Lynchburg. Personally, as a member of the NFOIC board of directors, I am particularly sad to lose his good-hearted, affable nature, as well his encyclopedic knowledge of professional tennis -- an interest we shared and frequently discussed. Rest in peace, Ken and thank you.

Censoring the censors
Looking for a scary story to tell your kids at night? There are nine of them in the 2014 edition of the Thomas Jefferson for the Protection of Free Expression's annual Jefferson Muzzle awards. This year's frightening entries come from perennial recipient, the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as from Modesto Junior College, the Kansas Board of Regents and the North Carolina General Assembly Police.

Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

FOIA reform begins it's 2.5-year journey;
let YOUR voice be heard

At its April 22 meeting, the FOIA Council agreed to use a work plan drafted by staffas an adaptable road map to follow as it begins its work to give FOIA its first top-to-bottom makeover since 1999.

The council named two subcommittees -- one on records and one on meetings -- and tasked each one with studying a certain set of FOIA provisions, starting with the exemptions, over the next 2.5 years. An example of what a restructured FOIA could look like can be found here.

VCOG will be participating in the subcommittees' work, and one thing we can bring to the table is information about what our members and supporters think are some of FOIA's biggest problems. We've created a short survey for citizens, journalists, businessess, government employees and public officials, and it includes an open-ended question about what 3 things you would do to improve FOIA. 

To participate in the survey, click here.

In other council news, two bills referred by the General Assembly for possible study were rolled into the overall FOIA reform process: Del. Bob Brink's, D-Arlington, bill would spell out that the attorney general's office is subject to FOIA, while one brought by Del. Jim LeMunyon, R-Chantilly, would set out procedures for out-of-state records requesters to have access to state and local records in Virginia.

The council also heard from a Fairfax-area student who says he was retaliated against after making a FOIA request and an advocate for reform of the sex offender registry who believes agencies abuse their discretion in denying release of certain information based on the requester's identity.

The next meetings of the full council will be July 8, Sept. 16 and Nov. 18, though the subcommittees will meet at various times between those dates.

Records mananagement & FOIA workshop


VCOG is holding its fifth workshop for government records management and FOIA officers on improving their records management and FOIA responsibilities. The premise of the workshop is that better-managed records make responding to FOIA requests easier.

As with past workshops, this one will feature presentations by a records analyst wtih the Library of Virginia, the director of the Freedom of Information Advisory Council and Alexandria's acting public information director.

When:    Wednesday, June 4, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
   The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg
Hungry? Light refreshments will be provided.

Though the program is geared towards government employees, the public and press may also attend. In just over a week of advertising, more than 50 people have registered.

For registration information, click here.

Supreme Court rules UVA can withhold email

The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled April 17 that the University of Virginia did not make a mistake in withholding hundreds of emails sent and received by former UVA professor and climate scientist Michael Mann.

The 3-year drama, which included missed deadlines, a scheduled private release of messages and intervention in the case by Mann himself, ended (at least temporarily) when a unanimous court ruled that exemption 2.2-3705.4(4) for "proprietary records" used in research was properly invoked in response to the American Tradition Institute's request for the messages.

The court interpreted the phrase "proprietary" broadly to include "a right customarily associated with ownership, title, and possession." The court noted, however, that to be withheld under this exemption, the records had to meet several other criteria.

In a concurring opinion, Justice William Mims noted the potential problem of defining "proprietary" so broadly, considering the term is used frequently throughout FOIA.

The court also confirmed that the government can charge requesters for the time spent "reviewing" records before their release.

To read the full text of the opinion, click here.

Open government in the news

WCVE’s Dick Harman was recognized by the Richmond City Council for his steadfastcoverage of the council’s meetings for the past 26 years. Harman estimates he’s been to at least 600 meetings....Speaking of the Richmond City Council, council members voted at the end of April to close what had been designated the “media gallery” and to allow only council and administrative staff in the area, which is behind the council dais. The vote came after former sheriff’s candidate and blogger Chris Dorsey was asked to leave the gallery when he allegedly pointed to the gun he was carrying while arguing with staff about whether he was a member of the media. “I’m being kidnapped!” he shouted as he was forcibly removed by security officers....In a new report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a good-government research group, grading the states on their online budget transparency, Virginia received a B+. Virginia scored well in most categories, but lost points over the opaqueness of its system of awarding tax breaks through the Major Business Facility Job Tax Credit programs....A Radford citizen was told by the local school board that it would cost $830 for access to audio recordings of recent board meetings. The division said the recordings existed only on an iPad and the process for converting the files into shareable data would take the same amount of time as the length of the audio itself: 20.75 hours at $40/hour....Both houses of the U.S. Congress approved a measure sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, D, that would require federal agencies to provide more data online detailing their spending. If President Barack Obama signs the legislation, called the DATAct, the website would be expanded within the next three years....Thanks to a bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, citizens can get certified copies of their birth certificates at local DMV offices around the state. Previously, citizens often had to travel to the Office of Vital Records in Richmond for the records....The McAuliffe administration launched a website, that will feature many government “big data” sets, including school report cards, the dangerous dog registry and traffic information that is open for use by the public, advocacy groups and information technology entrepreneurs....The State Board of Elections finalized a rule change proposed earlier in the year that would push back the filing deadline for candidate campaign finance reports from 5:00 p.m. on certain days to 11:59 p.m. on those same days. Though possibly more convenient for candidates, the rule change has the effect of pushing news about the filings back a full news cycle....defamation lawsuit brought against Chesterfield County school officials by the parent of a child who died from an allergic reaction to a peanut at an area school was dismissed. On the other hand, another judge refused to dismiss alibel suit brought a member of the Culpepr County Board of Supervisors against the local Commonwealth Attorney over comments she made that board members were “incompetent and corrupt.”...The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that a lower court judge erred in ordering the identity of a company that fought to block public access to a consumer safety report to be sealed.