Sunshine Report Newsletter, August 2014

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

In this issue

Cryptic award

E-meeting policies

In the face of dissent


Open government in the news

VCOG, Warner and the DATAct


Coalition News

Coming up

  • Aug. 15: VCOG Board of Directors meeting (Charlottesville)
  • Aug. 19: FOIA Council subcommittee on meetings (1:30 at the General Assembly Building)
  • Aug. 25: FOIA Council subcommittee on records (1:30 at the General Assembly Building)
  • Sept. 10: Records-management and FOIA workshop (9:30 at the Virginia Capitol, House Room1)
  • Nov. 14: VCOG's annual conference (O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke)

On the road...and around the state

On July 22, VCOG's Megan Rhyne spoke to the High School Leaders Program with the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. Students discussed how people use public records, like health inspections or the sex offender registry, to inform their personal decisions.

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

FOIA Council updates

Subcommittees of the FOIA Council will meet again in August to continue their review of FOIA’s meetings and records exemptions. The subcommittee on meetings exemptions will meet Aug. 19 at 1:30 p.m. in the 6th Floor Conference Room of the General Assembly Building. The subcommittee on records will meet Aug. 25 at the same time and same place. For a recap of the subcommittees’ first set of meetings, check out this collection of VCOG Tweets from the records subcommittee and from the meetings subcommittee.

VCOG, Warner and the DATAct

WarnerTweetOn July 2, VCOG’s Board of Directors had the pleasure of hosting Sen. Mark Warner (D) for a discussion about open government. Warner reviewed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA), which he co-sponsored with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Rep. Elijjah Cummings (D-Maryland) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California). DATA seeks to standardize federal financial reporting and will put all federal spending and government contracts online in a searchable and downloadable format.

As it stands, there are hundreds of different reporting standards across the federal government. Not everyone calls the same thing an expenditure, for instance. Or, as Warner said Issa described it: it’s as though everyone in Major League Baseball had a different definition of what constituted a hit, an error or a strike. Warner and Issa wanted to figure out language that would allow citizens to follow the money from the moment it comes in to federal coffers. 

The administration, including the Office of Management and Budget, was opposed to the measure, saying it part that it would place a burden on agencies. Yesterday, Warner countered that such legislation is supposed to help employees, who are being asked to do more with less.

He acknowledged that a front-end investment in technology will be required to get DATA working and was open to the possibility of private sector support. He cautioned, however, that private involvement isn’t a magic bullet.

“I’ve been in the private sector. We waste just as much money as the federal government,” he said. “The people who say the private sector is the answer are the ones who’ve been in the public sector for 30 years.”

On July 21, VCOG also hosted Warner’s staff member Amy Edwards, who gave an in-depth briefing on DATA to records managers, accountants and others.

Woodrum Legislative Internship
FracturedChipJoin 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 $28,000. Won't you make a contribution today to keep Chip's memory and legacy alive?

Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

Our engines are revved and we're gearing up here at VCOG for road trips, workshops and conferences. Starting in August and continuing through the fall, VCOG is creating opportunities to engage its members and provide educational resources for all who ask. This month it's a swing through far Southwest Virginia: FOIA talks with local governments and press members. We'll have another workshop for records managers in September, and in November we'll be holding our annual conference in Roanoke.

Also, stay tuned for a cocktail reception to raise money for and to promote the Chip Woodrum Legislative Intern -- information for how college juniors and seniors can apply for this new position was distributed in July.

As always, we rely on the memberships and donations of our friends. Please take a moment to make your tax-deductible contribution to VCOG today. Go to and click on either "join" or "donate" along the top line.

Thank you for your support!

Megan Rhyne
VCOG Executive Director

Cryptic award

The Supreme Court of Virginia awarded the University of Virginia $250 in damages, to be paid by the entity who sued the university under FOIA for access to former UVA climate scientist Michael Mann’s email. Though UVA did not ask for damages, and FOIA does not provide for them when the government wins, several appellate lawyers explained to the Open Virginia Law website that damages of between $150 and $2,500 are mandatory when the trial court is affirmed. As Open Virginia Law pointed out, there would have been far less confusion over the award -- and less posturing among the parties about the meaning of it -- had the court referenced the statute that authorizes the award or otherwise explained it: “People other than experienced appellate attorneys are interested in prominent cases.”

E-meeting policies

In light of a legislative change to the electronic meetings section of FOIA, localities have begun to adopt policies on whether and how they will allow members to call in from a remote location. A member’s use of the so-called “personal matters” option for not attending a meeting used to require an up or down vote by his or her colleagues. When that led to manipulation for political purposes (Leesburg Town Council members refused to allow a member to participate remotely when a controversial, close vote was expected on a local issue), the section was changed to require each locality to adopt a policy on when they would and would not allow remote participation. The change also requires them to apply the policy “strictly and uniformly, without exception.” Arlington County, the Town of Strasburg and the City of Williamsburg adopted such policies in July.

In the face of dissent

It seems several boards have a hard time figuring out when and how they can disagree with one another. Some boards and their members have been eschewing the marketplace of ideas in favor of unanimous agreement.

At an out-of-town retreat with the Henrico County School Board, a consultant recommended that the best chance for a superintendent to follow a school board’s direction was when the board spoke with “one voice.” Questioned by a board member about the need for robust discussion, the consultant said there could still be debate, but that debate should end once a decision was made.

That’s the same policy that was taken to the Governance Committee of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors: dissent is OK at the board meetings, but not afterwards, at least, not in public. But, when it came time to debate the policy, the committee went a step further: board members should not speak at all with the public about board business: “Visitors shall not, without the prior consent of the Rector or President, initiate communication with anyone, including elected or appointed public officials at the local, state, or federal level, on matters related to business of the Board of Visitors.”

Joan Fenton, who has been blogging about the board since the presidential coup of 2012, questioned the wisdom of the proposal: “You have to have room to express yourself honestly,” she told the Daily Progress. “And if you curtail that, you’re not going have good governance.”


Congratulations to the nine Virginia counties ranked among the country's best in the12th Annual Digital Counties Survey from the Center for Digital Government: Albemarle, Arlington, Chesterfield, Fairfax, Franklin, Gloucester, Loudoun, Montgomery and Roanoke Counties were all recognized.

Open government in the news

Hampton PTA president Pamela Croom led a Town Hall meeting of more than 100after she discovered $30,000 in administratos raises in the June consent agenda of the Hampton School Board. The community was especially upset at the decision in light of a board vote in April to eliminate more than 300 staff positions to balance the budget....Frustrated with the quality and timeliness of the City of Richmond’s website, a Richmond man has launched a contest called “Expose the Crappy City Website”that encourages cities to find pages with outdated information....The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors is teaming up with the Chatham Star-Tribune to publish the “Citizen News” newsletter. The first issue was July 23 and was to be sent to the approximately 35,000 homes in the county....The Prince William Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 to file a federal Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security for records related to the whereabouts of some 7,000 individuals county police have turned over to Immigration Customs Enforcement since 2008....After the Virginian-Pilot exposed that the Portsmouth city auditor had logged into the city’s financial system only twice in more than a year on the job, the auditor produced his first work plan to city councillors, who then learned that the document was remarkably similar to one prepared by his counterpart in Chesapeake. The auditordefended himself at a council meeting, saying the cover letter was similar to a standard used by many auditors....Newly appointed to the Danville School Board, Steven Gould announced he will hold “office hours” every Tuesday in various locations around the city. Gould said it’s believed he is the first school board member to hold such meetings....The prosecutor in a cigarette trafficking case in Shenandoah County Circuit Court said he would be asking to close the next hearing to the public and the press. Defense attorneys did not oppose the move. When asked, though, why the hearing needed to be closed, the prosecutor simply stated, “We’re just closing the hearing.”... The Daily Press conducted an analysis of the cost of Peninsula local governing boards. York County spends $305,000 on council operations, while Isle of Wight spends just under $277,000. Williamsburg spends $98,000, compared to $474,000 in the more populous Hampton.

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