Sunshine Report for May 2024


the month that was
april '24


our annual conference

Thank you to everyone who came out and participated in VCOG's annual conference April 18 in Yorktown. The setting and the sunny day couldn't have been better, and the speakers kept us all engaged and informed.

Clockwise from top left: Dan Wolf and Scott Horn discuss AI and public records; the Librarian of Virginia, Dennis Clark, listens to a presentation shortly after delivering the day's opening remarks; former deputy House clerks Jeff Finch and Scott Maddrea compare Virginia past and present and in relation to other states when it comes to legislative transparency; Kevin Martingayle and Deb Collins, who faced each other as opposing council in a FOIA lawsuit, discuss the litigation process; a full house at the Yorktown Freight Shed.

VCOG raised over $8,000 with the generous support of our host, Willcox Savage, and our many other sponsors and donors (See below). Check out the speakers and the materials that went with the panels and presentations on VCOG's conference website.


Pandemonium in Petersburg

Without prior notice on the agenda for its city council meeting, Petersburg voted to approve the selection of Baltimore's Cordish Companies to build a proposed casino in the area. The surprise move prompted a war of words between city officials, a labor union and the state senator who represents Petersburg. A labor union issued a press release saying it was going to file a FOIA suit against the city over what they say is the inadequate closed meeting motions. 

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open government in the news


In announcing the formation of a planning meeting for the Virginia Clean Economy Act Summit, Sen. Dave Marsden advised stakeholders that he would consider their conversations as his working papers for potential legislation that he would withhold in response to a theoretical FOIA request. He also told invitees to keep their own information private: "Any documents created for my personal or deliberative use as a Senator should not be disseminated or used for other purposes." Marsden defended the suggestion as standard practice.

Abingdon announced it would begin holding monthly afternoon sessions to get public feedback. "Often times, the Town Council and the citizens who attend these meetings don't have the opportunity to actually exchange information and to discuss various topics that are important to the town," one council member explained.

In his capacity as county attorney in King George, Sen. Richard Stuart, who also serves on the FOIA Council, proposed eliminating the free initial 30 minutes of research for FOIA requests. A member of the board of supervisors went one step further and suggested a change that would say "no more to you," once a requester made a certain number of requests. The problem, Stuart said, is that a local media outlet exploits the 30-minute-free policy by making small requests to stay under that time limit.

Despite proclaiming that it had survey results that supported citizen support for dissolving the joint school division with James City County, an actual copy of the survey, obtained through FOIA, did not include a question about Williamsburg becoming an independent school district.

The NAACP of Virginia announced plans to sue the Youngkin administration over access to records related to the state's office headed by the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which, despite being titled that in statute, the administration nonetheless refers to as Director of Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion. The NAACP claims the governor's FOIA officer first called the group's request too broad but still didn't divulge records after the request was narrowed.

The Chesapeake City Council voted to require that applications for planning and land use permits include information similar to what council members have to divulge on statements of economic interest. Applicants will now have to disclose all companies, firms or individuals they've hired to lobby the city council and the city's planning commission.

The Spotsylvania County School Board voted 5-0 (with two members absent) to issue a letter reprimanding a fellow board member for “'specific conversations that [occurred] in closed session with Spotsylvania County employees who were not part of closed session,' violating pledges related to confidentiality and proper communication." The member was also faulted for sharing emails on social media: "[A]nd while these are things that could have been [FOIA'ed], they weren't."

At a meeting of the Spotsylvania County School Board in late April, members cut each other, turned off microphones and pulled out megaphones to make their comments heard. At issue: Whether the interim superintendent should let board members look through the personnel file of the former superintendent to under the "cause" he was fired for. The board chair reminded the two members who wanted the special audience that the reasons were discussed in meetings that the two did not attend.

The City of Richmond filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the $250,000 whistleblower suit filed by the city's former FOIA officer. The officer claims she was not hired for a different job and ultimately fired because she pushed back on what she says was incorrect direction under FOIA. The city says it was not improper to withhold records on a diseased tree that fell on a city worker, killing him. However, the reason the city said it was OK to withhold those records was different in the motion to dismiss than it was in what the reporter seeking the records was told.


Chesterfield police allowed a WTVR reporter to view the body camera video footage and 911 call recording of the moments leading up to their shooting of Charles Byers while Byers was experiencing a mental health crisis. Though the family has lobbied for release of the video to the general public, but the Chesterfield County Attorney's Office said it would not release it because of concerns that the video could be manipulated by AI.

When TV reporters asked Newport News for records related to the firing of two firefighters over allegations that they ignored protocols when responding to an October shooting, the city at first said it would cost $421.01 and asked for a deposit in that amount. When the reporter narrowed the request instead, the city said it was entirely withholding all the records: 26 pages under the legal advice exemption, and 162 pages under the personnel exemption, the exemption for noncriminal records that would jeopardize the safety or privacy of any person if released, and the exemption for internal investigations.

The woman who successfully pursued a FOIA lawsuit against the Suffolk School Board over their insistence that making the public sit in one room while the board members met in another has now filed a defamation suit against the entity. She claims that at that same meeting, one member posted video on social media of the woman being escorted out of the building by police. 

A member of the Warren County School Board complained publicly that her fellow board members were having too many conversations via email or during closed session.

The University of Virginia's decision to withhold the report prepared by an outside law firm to look into the events leading up to and following the deadly shooting of three school football players was preceded by an "urgent" meeting with the Albermarle County Commonwealth's Attorney, who is prosecuting the suspect in those murders. The school originally said it would release the report -- after a planned delay -- but then reversed course, saying it didn't want to jeopardize the CA's case.

According to records obtained by The Progress-Index, Hopewell's outgoing city attorney asked the attorney general's office to investigate claims that the city's treasurer removed herself from a state agency's list of delinquent taxpayers.

The Bedford School Board filed a $600,000 suit against the father of a special needs child and asked the court to issue an injunction against the man and to assess $250,000 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. Filed by attorneys with the Sands Anderson law firm, the suit claims the man's "obscene, vulgar, profane, lewd, lascivious and/or indecent language" towards staff members necessitated relief. The parent doesn't exactly deny that, but he points out that the suit comes at a time when he had reported failures in the implementation of his son's individualized education plan. Two school board members stated in a popular Facebook group that they didn't know the suit would be filed.

A member of the Pulaski Town Council was charged with 4 misdemeanors stemming from his relationship with a community center where his wife serves as co-executive director. A widely circulated video of a town meeting in September 2022 shows the council member suggesting the idea of funding the center. The council member lamented the waste of taxpayer money to pursue the charges and admitted that he could have made "some sort of technical violation," but that the statements of economic interest statute is "confusing" and "very hyper technical."

As part of its efforts to "protect the citizens of Martinsville," the city settled with its previous city attorney/manager and said it was taking steps to change the charter to prevent one person from serving as both a city employee and a city council appointee. The council also said it would begin requiring financial statements for all agenda items. The council agreed to pay $110,000 to settle the contractual dispute, even though the former city attorney/manager said he was owed $3,025 per month for the rest of his life.


Virginia Coalition for Open Government

P.O. Box 2576
Williamsburg VA  23187