Sunshine Report for May 2019

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
May 2019
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VCOG's annual conference
We had a wonderful day by the sea, April 11, for VCOG's annual conference. At the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communication at Hampton University, audience members -- fairly evenly split among journalists, government folks and interested citizens -- engaged with panelists on topics like African-American genealogy, public comment periods at public meetings, access to police body-worn camera footage, economic development and a General Assembly wrap-up. Lunch was in the education center at the beautiful Hampton Museum, where WTVR-Richmond reporter Shelby Brown told stories of how she and her colleagues are able to track down information to help ordinary citizens with what they feel are insurmountable problems.

Thank you to all who came out and to all of our generous sponsors and donors!

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VCOG files brief in support of Transparent GMU
VCOG filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court of Virginia in the case of Transparent GMU v. George Mason University over access to records of the GMU Foundation, which is responsible for raising millions of dollars for the university. Drafted by VCOG board member Christopher Gatewood of Threshold Counsel, the brief discusses why foundation records are necessary to the understanding of university operations, noting that the money raised by the foundation can impact decisions the university makes on hiring, curriculum, facilities, tuition rates, sports programs and requests for General Assembly funding.

You can read VCOG's brief, as well as many filings in the case since it began back in 2017, on VCOG's case clearinghouse page.

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Supreme Court issues problematic rules on access to administrative records
The Supreme Court of Virginia has adopted rules on access to judicial records that are slated to go into effect in mid-June. The proposed rules apply not just case records and judicial deliberations, but also to court administrative and general operations records, too. The final rules largely mirror what was proposed in October when they were opened up for public comment. They perpetuate policy problems VCOG and the Virginia Press Association raised in their comments, particularly that the Office of Executive Secretary -- an entity created by the General Assembly -- as well as court administrative records should be subject to FOIA.

Read the rules for yourself, as well as the comments VCOG submitted, on VCOG's Google shared drive.
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Open government
in the news
The attorney general's office advised a state board investigating deaths at regional jails that it could bar JLARC auditors from its closed-door meetings.

The Front Royal Town Council voted to authorize its town attorney to file a FOIA request with the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority for records related to an audit into the EDA's finances, which led to the authority filing a $17 million lawsuit against its former director and eight others. The EDA's interim director said the report is in draft form and that he will release it when the EDA's attorney believes "the time is right."

Meanwhile, in response to a FOIA request filed by The Northern Virginia Daily, the same EDA revealed that messages sent and received by its former legal counsel had been deleted before records retention schedules say they could be.

A vocal opponent of a proposal to build a youth correctional facility near Windsor -- a proposal that was ultimately defeated -- spent $877 to track correspondence on the project going back to 2017.

Video of a Portsmouth City Council meeting was edited to cut out one of the most vocal critics of the alleged forced resignation of the city's first female African-American police chief. City officials said the editing was needed to cut out profane words. Later, however, a racially divided council voted to stop recording all citizen comments.

Williamsburg officials grappled with whether the tourism council created by 2018 legislation is a public body subject to FOIA. The body was created by statute to manage a special tourism tax. The body's legal counsel said the legislature's intent was to avoid the "burden" of having to abide by FOIA's meeting requirements. The council has asked for an opinion from the attorney general's office.

Members of the Rappahannock Board of Supervisors were haunted by past FOIA lawsuits brought against it when they refused to go into a closed session to discuss an unnamed county employee's performance. The attorney in those lawsuits later suggested to the Planning Commission that they were violating FOIA's provisions regarding agenda materials and meeting minutes, a charge the county administrator disagreed with and called a "fear tactic."

The insurance company for the Peninsula Airport Commission agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a defamation lawsuit brought by its former director, who said that airport employees and a commission member had defamed his character over his shredding of documents at the airport in early 2017.

A member of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail board criticized its former director for going to the legislature to ask for more money without first going to the board, but minutes from a meeting prior to the session show that the director had been telling board members about the proposal for months and had even given a copy of the draft legislation to each member.

It's now been more than 13 months since the Richmond mayor announced that a nonprofit group had proposed to develop the Richmond coliseum and surrounding areas, yet the mayor continued to withhold the proposal, saying it is part of ongoing negotiations. A critic of the administration is now filing suit to force the city to release the information.

Danville launched the Danville Geographic Data Hub, which features data and maps available for search or download. The Data Hub can assist residents with parcel identification, points of interest, or even find where to vote by viewing precincts and polling locations.

The Richmond Public School system created the Joint Construction Team to oversee school construction. Though the school board chair said the district had been posting public notices ahead of the team's meetings, that wasn't the case in practice. The meetings were not listed in monthly rundown of district meetings for March or April. They also weren't posted under the “meeting notices” heading on the district’s website.

A string of emails obtained through FOIA by a Richmond Public School parent cast doubt on the official explanation for why the district ran short of janitorial supplies -- including toilet paper and paper towels -- towards the end of last school year. The shortage was blamed on the then-operations manager. Emails show the superintendent took more than a week to shift funds to the depleted janitorial budget.

The Arlington Resident Ombudsman and Director of Constituent Services said staff at the zoning and permitting office were mistaken when they told a reporter to file a FOIA request to view preliminary site plans that used to be regularly available for inspection. “There will be no requirement for a written request,” he said, but he also noted that requiring FOIA requests levels the playing field because some people are able to get records faster because of their relationship with staff or local officials.

The Charlottesville Police Chief and the Police Civilian Review Board gave differing accounts of whether the chief was willing to meet with the board in public. The CRB said the chief wanted a private meeting, and one member read out loud an the email exchange where the chief's secretary said the chief was unavailable to meet during any of the dates offered, yet did not suggest any alternative dates or times. The chief, however, disputed that assertion, saying it was "disingenuous and inherently false." She also accused The Daily Progress of an "attempt to create derision and controversy when none existed."

When asked by Richmond City Council members why the mayor changed his mind on a spending plan, the Richmond chief administrative officer declined to answer directly but instead invited council president and another council member to meet with the mayor privately. Neither accepted the officer, while those members not invited complained that there should not be closed-door budget discussions.

"Virginia has gained almost $16 billion in capital investment through economic development since Gov. Ralph Northam took office 16 months ago, but nearly half of it — almost $7.4 billion — came from publicly unannounced projects by companies that did not want to be identified." -- Richmond Times-Dispatch

Reporters for the UVA student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, received salary data from the university through a FOIA request and reported that the number of women across all divisions in the top 20 earners at the University has increased from two in the 2015-2016 academic year to six women this year. A university spokesperson said FOIA data doesn't necessarily take into account factors like education and tenure to explain the gender gap.

Statements obtained by The Virginian-Pilot from the Eastern Virginia Medical School through FOIA show that the lawyer hired to investigate the photos that appeared on Governor Ralph Northam's page in a 1984 yearbook had billed $116,000 as of March 31.

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Join VCOG's FOI Slack channel

VCOG has created a Slack channel on Virginia FOIA. Read our guidelines and join. Share your FOIA requests or discuss such topics as open meetings, fees, enforcement and datasets.

Click here to read our guidelines and join our Slack channel.

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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, 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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VCOG is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. TIN 54-1810687
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