Sunshine Report Newsletter, June 2014


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

In this issue

Reaching our goals

FOIA Council study off to slow start

Open government in the news

A tale of two sealing orders

Suicide reports can be withheld

Meeting on a prayer

Coalition News

Recently on VCOG Blog

On the road...and around the state
VCOG will be holding a workshop on records management and FOIA on June 4 in Fredericksburg. We have more than 100 people registered, representing 41 state and local governments. A big thank you to the University of Mary Washington for hosting us.

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

Coalition News
BH Media announced in early May that longtime Daily Progress publisher Lawrence McConnell would not be retiring as he had originally planned but would instead be taking over as editor of The Roanoke Times when its editor, Joe Stinnett, retires in July. McConnell has served on VCOG's board of directors for more than 10 years and was its president for 2009 and 2010.

Woodrum Legislative Internship
Join 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 $27,000. Won't you make a contribution today to keep Chip's memory and legacy alive?

Stay up to date on access
Sign up for VCOG's daily listserv on access and First Amendment news from Virginia and accross the country. It's free!

Tales of two sealing orders

After his 1991 conviction for murder was overturned last year, David W. Boyce petitioned to have all the records of the case sealed and his record expunged. In February, Norfolk Circuit Judge Mary Jane Hall agreed, though she did allow prosecutors continued access to the file. In May, Hall backtracked, opening up the records at least until any civil suites are resolved. Boyce’s criminal history in the Central Criminal Records Exchange is to be erased.

Also in May, the judge in the corruption case against former Governor Bob McDonnell, refused a request from McDonnell’s lawyers to file certain documents under seal. In so ruling, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said that the defense had not justified limiting “the public’s presumptive right of access”  McDonnell’s additional requests to keep various filings out of the public view are still pending.

Meeting on a prayer

Local governments were sent scrambling in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it did not violate the First Amendment to begin a public meeting with a sectarian prayer. The case came from Greece, New York, and had been watched closely by, among others, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, who had been on the losing end of a court case challenging its prayer practices. Sen. Bill Stanley, the board’s attorney, said he will be asking the judge in that case to lift the permanent injunction banning sectarian prayers there.

Fredericksburg indicated it would keep its non-sectarian policy, while Chesterfield said that even though it would continue to study the ruling, religious leaders would not be asked to keep prayers generic. Meanwhile, a Roanoke County supervisor raised national eyebrows when he stated that he would recommend a policy that would make him and his colleagues responsible for finding appropriate people to offer invocations but that he, personally, would not approve a non-Christian prayer because he “[didn’t] believe that.”

Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

Can you help us reach our goals?

It's the least fun part of running a non-profit, but it has to be done: we need to raise money to keep up the steady, uninterrupted delivery of programs and services we provide: workshops, conferences, advocacy, hotline assistance and, of course, the very newsletter you're reading now.

We need just $1,600 to meet our membership and donation goals by June 30.

What exactly does that mean? Well, we keep track of our revenue by membership dues and unrestricted gifts. Dues are on a sliding scale, while gifts/donations have no minimum or maxium. We would meet each category's goal, as well as our overall goal, if we got the following:
  • 16 citizens or reporters
  • 2 to 22 newspapers, depending on their circulation size
  • 1 lawyer or law firm
  • 1 government employee or government unit
  • $350 in additional donations
If you are an existing member or donor, THANK YOU! Perhaps consider challenging your colleagues to join you in supporting the state's only full-time organization dedicated to keeping Virginia's public records and meetings as open and accessible as possible.

Please: join or donate today.

Thank you,

FOIA study off to a sluggish start

Little in the way of substantive discussion took place at the inaugural meetings of the FOIA Council’s subcommittees on records and meetings. The committees were created in April to carry out the council’s study of FOIA’s exemptions, clarity and readability.

The records subcommittee elected Division of Legislative Services head Bob Tavenner as chair, in his absence, while citizen member Chris Ashby was elected vice chair and presided over the meeting. Some on the subcommittee wondered whether the subcommittees were allowed to discuss policy and asked that the meeting schedule be pushed back. Even though council staff pointed out that the council already has authority to study all aspects of FOIA, the subcommittee agreed that it wanted to wait until the full FOIA Council gave it direction.

A similar discussion took place at the meetings subcommittee, where George Whitehurst was elected chair. However, this group decided there were aspects of the meetings section it could begin working on without guidance from the full council.

The next committee meetings will be some time in June.

In anticipation of the study, VCOG conducted an informal survey of its members and supporters about what they thought the biggest problems with FOIA are. Some differences of opinion were found between citizens and journalists versus government employees, but most opinions aligned. In particular, both groups found the biggest problem with the fees section was figuring out what was meant by “actual cost,” and, in general, what constitutes the “transaction of public business.”

The full survey results can be found here.

FOIA and suicides

The Freedom of Information Advisory Council issued an non-binding opinion May 22 that said suicide reports could be kept confidential by law enforcement as criminal investigative files.

The council’s opinion was prompted by a request from Norfolk television reporter Mike Mather while working on a story for WTKR with the mother of a 16-year-old girl who took her own life. Mather asked Virginia Beach’s police department for all reports related to the girl’s death. The city denied the request, saying the records were part of a criminal investigation.

“In Virginia Beach, when someone dies,” the Virginia Beach city attorney wrote, “and the cause is not clearly a natural cause, our Police Department conducts a criminal investigation to determine whether a crime occurred.” The police determined that the girl’s death was a suicide.

Mather asked the FOIA Council to weigh in since it had ruled 11 years earlier that suicide reports were non-criminal incidents that were open to the public. Reviewing the issue for the second time, however, the council concluded that suicide remains a crime under Virginia law: a common law criminal offense that is not specified in the criminal law statutes. Therefore, since FOIA generally allows law enforcement to withhold records related to the investigation of a crime, and since su