Sunshine Report Newsletter, January 2015

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The Sunshine Report: Online Transparency news from the Virginia Coalition
for Open Government   January 2015

In this issue

Transparency Coalition

UVA and Rolling Stone

Open government in the news

The curious case of John Geer

A clerk of court assist

Coalition News

Watch your mailbox

VCOG's annual print newsletter, The Sunshine Report, will be out by mid-January. Watch for it in your mailbox or inbox.

The curious case of John Geer

John Geer was a man distraught at the prospect of losing the mother of his child and partner of 20-some years. The woman told him she was moving out, and Geer lashed out by throwing the woman's belongings onto the front lawn of his townhouse. The woman called the police, who talked to Geer as he stood behind the storm door of his house, hands above his head on the door frame, for nearly an hour. Then Geer moved and an officer shot him once in the chest. Geer fell, but officers did not enter the house for more than an hour, at which time they found Geer at the spot where he fell, dead.

More than a year later, Geer's family has no information on the shooting. Fairfax County police refused to talk or to release any records related to the shooting. The case was eventually turned over to the Justice Department, but still Fairfax remained silent on the advice of its county attorney.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) even became involved, at which time DOJ confirmed that it did not order the county to withhold any records.

On Dec. 22, a circuit court judge ordered the police department to turn over many of their records. The judge rejected the county's justification that it should withhold any and all records because of the reluctance to distinguish between what's part of the investigative record and what is not.

A circuit court clerk assist

The clerk of court for Newport News made two pro-access moves in December. First, Rex Davis implemented procedures that would force police tosubmit the application for and the order to seal telephone records obtained by police as separate documents. The practice had been to submit both in one file, which made it difficult to discern which part of the record should be opened after a statutorily mandated 90-day period, and which part should remain under seal.

The second effort came in response to the Daily Press’ attempt to access the database that underlies the court system’s public case information online search. The Office of Executive Secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court has refused to grant access, but Davis gave the OES permission to release the data for Newport News.

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Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

Dear Friends - 

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday that was full of love, laughter and (of course) LIGHT!

It may be cold and dreary out today, but we're fired up and excited here at VCOG. That's because in a week, the inaugural year of our Chip Woodrum Legislative Internship kicks off. We are pleased to welcome Zhina Kamali, a junior at VCU, as the first Woodrum Intern. Zhina will be roaming the halls of the Capitol and General Assembly Building, learning hands-on about the legislative process. She will be tracking open-government legislation for us, as well as assisting with our outreach efforts. Zhina is as bright and energetic a person as I could hope for. Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the internship. We could not have done it without you.

Welcome, Zhina!

Megan Rhyne
VCOG Executive Director

Transparency Coalition

A group of lobbyists for a dozen or so non-profits and advoacy groups have formed an informal Transparency Coalition to confront some of the more opaque practices and procedures at the General Assembly. The coalition held its first meeting in December and generated a list of especially frustrating practices, such as unannounced or late changes to the time and location of subcommittee meetings; committee meetings held on the House or Senate floor; voice votes not recorded by member; and subcommittees killing bills without review by the full committee.

The group strives to be non-partisan, acknowledging that access problems exist for all, regardless of political or ideological beliefs.

Groups interested in joining the coalition can contact Carol Noggle with the League of Women Voters:

The group will next meet Monday, Jan. 5, at 1 p.m. on the 4th Floor of the General Assembly Building.

UVA and Rolling Stone

Rocked by a shocking story of a brutal gang rape at a school fraternity, University of Virginia officials scrambled to respond to a multitude of questions from the public, press and university community.

When news subsequently broke calling into question the veracity of the account in Rolling Stone, UVA was somewhat vindicated, but it didn't quiet those who wanted to know about both the interaction between UVA President Teresa Sullivan and Rolling Stone, as well as the interaction between various UVA administrators and various victims of alleged sexual assault.

For several days, the university refused to reveal whether an independent investigation it commissioned would be publically available. Many FOIA requests were denied, citing the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects an individual's academic records, but not records pertaining to students generally.

Eventually, the university said it would disclose all five reviews being conducted on the school's handling of sexual assault. It also released emails detailing the back and forth between UVA and Rolling Stone prior to the article's publication.

UVA Rector George Keith Martin decried what he called "drive-by journalism in the 21st century."

Journalists at the Washington Post uncovered many of the problems in the Rolling Stone story.

Open government in the news

The governor’s ethics panel formally endorsed a plan to create an ethics commissionwith the power to investigate possible wrongdoing by public officials....Martinsville police officers will begin wearing new-model body-cameras that do not allow officers to delete or modify its video footage....Tensions among Richmond School Board members got so strained that one member filed for a protective order against the other. A citizen-activist who has refused to relinquish control over a community task force also filed for an order against the same member. A judge, however, refused to make the orders permanent and urged the parties to find other solutions for what were essentially personal disagreements....The Register & Bee in Danville reviewed the 28 city boards and commissions and found that roughly half of them held their meetings during working hours....For fear of tainting the jury pool, a Rockingham County judge refused to open up a sealed rejected plea agreement in the case against a Washington & Lee student charged in the death of another student. The judge nonetheless thanked the W&L professor for initiating the request and called the rejected offer the most unusual he had ever seen....At his final meeting as a member of the Petersburg City Council, Ken Pritchett asked for an unscheduled vote to close the city’s jail. The rest of the council supported the vote. Pritchett later said he hadn’t thought of the idea until the morning of the meeting, while the city’s spokesperson called the vote a “policy decision that neither required notice nor . . . require public commentary”....The former medical provider for Virginia Beach’s jails said it wouldfight an attempt by the Virginian-Pilot to obtain records of a wrongful death settlement stating how much it paid to the family of an inmate who choked to death on a plastic ID bracelet....After dozens of people were told to leave a Virginia Beach City Council meeting because of fire-safety concerns, the Virginian-Pilot surveyed other public bodies in the area and found that though Virginia Beach has the largest population, it has the smallest public meeting space....A federal judge expressed unease about court rules enabling documents in criminal cases, in this instance a sealed document in a $20 million cigarette trafficking case, to be filed without showing up on the court’s public electronic docket....Pittsylvania County lost its appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the county’s prayer policy for public meetings. The appeals was filed too late, the court said. The county’s attorney, Sen. Bill Stanley, said he anticipated the ruling, and will now go to the trial court to ask, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s in Town of Greece v. Galloway ruling, for the injunction against the county to be lifted....After three months, the Daily Press finally obtained the mug shot of the former Windsor police chief accused of embezzlement after the Suffolk Police Department said it did not have it, and the Virginia State Police said it could not release it....A closed-door meeting of the Fort Monroe Authority likely violated state law, according to Alan Gernhardt of the FOIA Council, because there is no exemption allowing a meeting to be closed for one member to disclose a potential conflict of interest.....Albermarle County voted at year’s end not to live stream its future meetings. Supporters of the idea said it would increase public access. Opponents were concerned with the added cost, and one member said, “It creates another layer of technology which can fail and cause some frustration.”