Sunshine Report Newsletter, December 2014


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

In this issue

Honoring a one-of-a-kind

VCOG's annual conference

FOIA Council updates

Open government in the news

Annual award winners

Circuit court case information

Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

Dear Friends - 

Maybe it was because everyone was relieved that the elections were over -- no more campaigning! Maybe it was relief that the threatened nasty weather did not materialize. Or maybe it was that we just had a really good subject. But there was laughter and love in abundance in Roanoke on Nov. 13 as VCOG feted the late Chip Woodrum, in whose honor VCOG has established a legislative internship. As was befitting the rascally Woodrum, jokes, zingers and pranks flew from every corner of the room at Center in the Square. It was a memorable occasion.

The next day, VCOG held its annual conference at the O. Winston Link Museum. The panels were well attended and well received. In addition, VCOG raised more in registration and sponsorships this year than ever before. We have wonderful friends and supporters like you to thank for that. Click here to see who donated to the conference.

Also in November, VCOG was present at FOIA Council and subcommittee meetings and was busy looking over the applications for the Woodrum Internship. We'll be putting together our print publication in December, as well as sending out feelers to local governments who may want to join VCOG and/or have VCOG come in to talk about FOIA from a citizen's perspective.

Greetings of the season to you all!

Megan Rhyne
VCOG Executive Director

Coalition News

Have you read it?

On the VCOG Blog:

A new board member and a departure

The VCOG Board of Directors added a new board member to its ranks with its approval (endorsed by a vote of the membership at VCOG's conference) of Frank LoMonte to take the place of Pam Luecke, who is stepping down after nearly a decade of service. LoMonte is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. We are excited to have him aboard, though we will also miss Pam's input and presence. Thank you!

Honoring a one-of-a-kind

FullSizeRender-8The Virginia Coalition for Open Government held a reception in honor of the late Delegate Chip Woodrum on Nov. 13 at Center in the Square in Roanoke.

Woodrum was one of the strongest voices for open government in the General Assembly, when he served in the 1990s and 2000s, and was largely responsible for the major overhaul of FOIA in 1999 and the creation of the FOIA Council. He was the council's first chair, and he served on VCOG's board of directors.

VCOG has created a paid internship in the name of Woodrum that will be . . . to continue reading, and to view photos, visit our website.

VCOG's annual award winners

FullSizeRenderAt its annual conference in November, VCOG honored its annual open government award winners. In the citizens category it was Barbara Brown, a Fairfax mom who has spent four years sorting out extracurricular activity funds in Fairfax high schools.

FullSizeRender-4In the government category, VCOG honored the Kaine Email Archive at the Library of Virginia, which has reviewed all 1.3 million email messages exchanged by the Kaine administration and put them online in a free, searchable database.

Read more about the winners on our website.

VCOG's Annual Conference

The coalition's conference, our 14th, once again brought together public officials, citizens, journalists, activists and others with an interest in open government, to talk about the current issues of the day and those that are newly present on the access community's radar.

FullSizeRender-3On current issues, VCOG heard from Chris Piper, the director of the newly created (but not yet funded) ethics advisory council, and from William Fralin (at left), who ran through the proposed changes to the public-private partnership projects to increase transparency. Del. Sam Rasoul reminded attendees that a representative democracy depends on an informed citizenry. Attorney Stan Barnhill took the Virginia Supreme Court to task over its opinion allowing fees for review of FOIA requests, and reporter Zach Crizer discussed the high fees he was charged when attempting to access records of the Tobacco Commission.

On new issues, Amy Edwards of Sen. Mark Warner's staff briefed the audience on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which seeks over time to standardize spending data reported by all federal agencies. This is important to state and local government because they will use the same terminology and standards when reporting on federal grants.

Lisa Sedlak of the Town of Blacksburg showed how the town's website has evolved over the years, incorporating new tools to interact with citizens along the way. Ewan Simpson from Socrata discussed the work he and his company have done with several large cities in Virginia to open their data up to the public, and Peter Aiken of VCU talked about how he's working on similar initiatives with state government.

Beginning and ending the conference panels were VCU professor (and VCOG board member) Jeff South and three individuals from the coding community to talk more about the problems of unusable government data and the promise of open data in standard or basic formats. The team - Albert Bowden, Randy Hill and Ben Schoenfeld (see sidebar)-- also came up with a quick demonstration of what they and other so-called civic hackers do: they created a heat map showing the best and worst restaurant health inspections around the state.

For play-by-play coverage of the conference, check out our round-up of tweets on Storify, and to view pictures of some of the panelists mentioned above, view them on our website.

Circuit court case information

At VCOG's annual conference, panelist Ben Schoenfeld put together a bot that searches the Supreme Court's circuit court case information system.

A reporter mentioned to Schoenfeld that the court's site requires users to type in a name for each and every one of the 119 cicruit courts on the system to verify pending charges. Within just a few hours, Schoenfeld had a solution.

With his new website, you type in the name once and it searches all the courts, including Virginia Beach, which isn't on the Supreme Court's system.

I've written about this and about how journalists, citizens, government and open data folks should all be talking about how they can make data work for each other. Click here to read more.

FOIA Council updates

The FOIA Council held its annual legislative preview meeting Nov. 18. Both VCU and UVA came forward with proposals for 2015. VCU wants protection for talks by the VCU Board of Visitors about topics that can be discussed confidentially by the VCU Health System board. UVA seeks to close a loophole that allows release under FOIA of certain medical staffing and credentially information that can be withheld from disclosure under litigation discovery rules.

The council also reviewed the progress on its review of exemptions. The recommendations so far are to combine two exemptions on personnel records; divide the legal matters legal exemption into two; eliminate two provisions (DGIF magazine subscribers and a constituent correspondence exemption that restates existing law); and making tweaks to a few other exemptions. Several exemptions, including the ones for personnel discussions, are still being reviewed, and at least one commentator has expressed frustration at the slow pace and incremental changes the review has produced thus far.

Open government in the news

Better late than never: Henrico County finally began putting court records online. Clerk of Court Yvonne Smith had resisted the move for years, citing concerns over privacy. Staff workloads and increased electronic filings prompted her to flip the switch, the last circuit court in the state to do so....Without notice to the board of supervisors, the Isle of Wight County administrator stopped sending public notices for publication in the two local newspapers (The Smithfield Times and Tidewater News) and opted for publication in the Daily Press of Newport News, which covers only part of the county. The board was not made aware of the switch until November, at which time the administrator said he would need board approval to change back to the old way of notifying the public....A Washington & Lee journalism professor is petitioning a court in Rockbridge County to open up the rejected plea agreement in the case of a W&L student charged in the death of a fellow student in a car crash. Brian Richardson is being represented by Alice Neff Lucan, a founding director of VCOG. Read the petition....The State Board of Elections website crashed on Election Night, making it nearly impossible to access numbers on elections at the local level. Results from Congressional races was more easily accessed, but the crash had some, including Arlington County’s registrar, wondering about 2016....The Marion Police Department and the Smyth County Commonwealth Attorney refused to release details related to the arrest of a county sheriff’s deputy who was arrested on charges of drunkenness. Marion officials did release an incident report, but the entire narrative of the arrest was redacted from the five-page report....The Virginian-Pilot is suing the Federal Bureau of Investigations over the department’s refusal to turn over records related to the deaths of two agents in training exercises off the coast of Virginia Beach. The FBI issued a blanket denial to the Pilot’s federal FOIA request....The Richmond Economic Development Authority was happy to announce that Stone Brewing would be locating to the area, but was unwilling to release the bids submitted for the construction work on the project. The EDA said releasing the losing bids would harm its negotiating position (losing bids are public records in the regular procurement process, a process the EDA does not have to go through). Records that were released, however, showed that permits had been applied for by the winning bid two weeks before the company was officially awarded the contract. Officials said it was done that way to obtain a good deal on dirt....Alexandria, Hampton, Lynchburg, Roanoke and Williamsburg were all recognized by e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government as being among the top-ranked digital cities for their respective sizes in the 2014 Digital Cities Survey....A battle over email has erupted in Wythe County, with a deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney asking the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the county’s adminstrator. David Saliba, the attorney, says that on the same day the county sent a FOIA request to his boss for his email related to a decision not to prosecute someone, the administrator, Cellell Dalton, directed the information technology department to download all of Saliba’s email for the month of September.

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