Sunshine Report for May 2017


The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency News from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
May 2017
Transparency Virginia issues third annual
report on legislative transparency

4620958131_be0bc64551_bTransparency Virginia’s third annual report on legislative transparency shows that bills in the House of Delegates are defeated on a roll-call vote only 12% of the time. The report notes that the percentage of unrecorded votes went down from 2016, but is still higher than in 2015. Meanwhile, that percentage rose on the Senate side for the third year running, but was still relatively low, especially if bills from the Senate Rules Committee were not included.

On the other hand, the House made a significant improvement to transparency when it announced video of floor sessions would be archived and made searchable. The Senate eventually agree to archive sessions, but its floor session video is still not searchable.

The session was marked by other interesting developments, not least of which is the imminent departure of the presiding officers of both chambers, Speaker Bill Howell and Lt. Governor Ralph Northam.

The session saw 85 lawmakers write to the House and Senate clerks for video streaming and electronic voting boards in the soon-to-be-constructed new General Assembly Building, a letter from a committee chair saying he wasn’t going to schedule hearings on bills that didn’t have a chance of being passed and another unrecorded voice vote to kill a bill that would require recorded voice votes.

Read the full report here.


VCOG on the road

In addition to finishing up the FOIA course she taught at William and Mary's Christopher Wren Association, VCOG Executive Director Megan Rhyne was also a guest lecturer, along with Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Patrick Wilson, for the government and politics class at Christopher Newport University taught by James Toscano of Tidewater Community College. Megan also spoke at a breakfast meeting of the Midlothian Rotary Club

9New on VCOG’s Truth in the Field Blog  

  • A primer on the basics of Virginia's law guaranteeing access to Virginia state and local government records and meetings, by VCOG Board of Directors President Dick Hammerstrom.
  • A run-down on how a well-intentioned federal law has been misinterpreted to shield education records, by former VCOG board member, Frank LoMonte.
​Read both on VCOG's Truth in the Field Blog.


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

In advisory opinion AO-03-17, the FOIA Council again addressed the adequacy of the notice that was given to close meetings to the public, this time in Charlotte County. The council said neither the audio-recorded motion —  "Mr. Chairman, I move that the Board of Supervisors convene to close meeting to discuss personnel as permitted by the Virginia Code. I don't need to name all these numbers. That's the motion." — nor the differently worded motion set out in the minutes, were not “sufficient to satisfy all of the requirements of FOIA” because they didn’t identify the subject to be discussed or reference the applicable exemption.

The FOIA Council’s work group on proprietary records came closer to adopting a catch-all definition of and process for identifying trade secrets submitted by private businesses to the government. The current draft can be read here, and the work group again assembles this afternoon at 1:30 in the Capitol.


Open government in the news

After a five-week dispute with the Chesapeake School Board, the Virginian-Pilot finally got confirmation on how much the school division paid to the parents of a special education student who was allegedly restrained in a chair. Though the terms of the settlement were sealed, the Pilot maintained the amount paid to settle was public. The school insisted that the amount was not public because the division’s insurance company, not the division, made the payment. The Pilot uncovered the amount paid — $125,000 — in emails between division officials and the insurer obtained through FOIA.

The Pilot also obtained email records between Norfolk City Attorney Bernard Pishko, Circuit Court Judge Everett Martin and others that described a plan to install a successor to Treasurer Anthony Burfoot should he be removed from office (which he was). The brokered deal fell apart when the acting treasurer fired the putative successor for allegedly being unqualified.

The Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments April 21 on the Daily Press’ lawsuit against the Office of Executive Secretary over access to the database that underlies the publicly available case information the OES keeps on its website. The OES says the clerks of court own the data, while the Daily Press says the OES is a custodian. VCOG was party to an amicus brief filed in support of the Daily Press.

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia opened the papers of former Senator John W. Warner to the public, after a nine-year effort to catalog and organize the documents.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights notified the superintendent of Warren County Public Schools that it must make its certain pages of its website accessible for people with disabilities. The notification was prompted by a complaint, but the agency would not disclose where the complaint originated.

Rolling Stone magazine reached a confidential settlement with former University of Virginia associate dean Nicole Eramo on Eramo’s claim that the magazine defamed her in its 2014 article about an alleged gang rape at a UVA fraternity.

A U.S. district court judge ruled that Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman did not violate the First Amendment by deleting comments made on Plowman’s official Facebook page by county resident Brian Davison. Plowman has since reinstated Davison’s ability to comment, and the county has amended its social media policy by taking away public officials’ discretion to delete comments they deemed “clearly off topic.”

In mid-April, the City of Williamsburg began broadcasting its meetings via Facebook Live, a free technology. Acknowledging that some people may not watch more than a few minutes, the city’s IT director, Mark Barham, said even those people may find out something interesting enough to make the “more engaged citizens, students, visitors or business owners.”

A Suffolk circuit court set a date, May 15, for the Daily PressVirginian-Pilot and Smithfield Times to challenge the court’s order that kept the public and press out of Del. Rick Morris’ initial hearing on felony child cruelty charges in December. The media groups are also seeking a transcript of the proceeding, where several counts brought against Morris were dismissed. The hearing will take place three days before the trial on the remaining charges against Morris. 

Just two years after strongly endorsing the work of its superintendent, Dana Bedden, the Richmond School Board held a quickly called closed meeting before announcing that Bedden would step down at the end of June. Only two of the board’s members would offer insight into its decision, while Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said the board should have been more transparent.

A special grand jury looking into allegations that Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services shredded child abuse complaints decided not to recommend any charges. The commonwealth attorney said he could not comment on the grand jury’s reasoning, noting that it is within a court’s discretion to determine whether to unseal the grand jury’s report.

The executive director of the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator, who is also the Town of Abingdon’s mayor, said she gave Abingdon Town Council minutes of the incubator’s board meetings but has not supplied supervisors on the Washington County board with minutes because Abingdon employees did not know the correct email addresses to search for them. The director also supplied the Herald Courier with documents showing several legal experts’ advice that the incubator is not subject to FOIA.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression announced its annual Jefferson Muzzles “winners,” which include local school districts and sheriffs, state governments, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which restricted the unofficial sponsors of Olympic athletes in Rio to post any social medial or company website material that mentioned the athletes or the games, or used words like “Olympic,” “Rio,” “summer” and “gold.”


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