Sunshine Report Newsletter, October 2014

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

In this issue

Last call for hero nominations

The Richmond problem

Ugly mug shots issue

Open government in the news

Talking about public busienss
 

Coalition News

Coming up

  • Oct. 9: FOIA presentation to Town of Smithfield
  • Nov. 13: VCOG salute to Chip Woodrum (Center in the Square in Roanoke)
  • Nov. 14: VCOG's annual conference (O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke)

VCOG on the road

VCOG held another records-management and FOIA workshop Sept. 10, this time at the Virginia Capitol Building. Over 80 people attended and heard presentations from Glenn Smith, records analyst at the Library of Virginia, Maria Everett of the FOIA Council and Craig Fifer, Communications Director for the City of Alexandria and VCOG's Board of Directors president.

Ugly Mug

In response to a request from the Daily Press for the booking photo of former Windso Police Chief Arlis “Vic” Reynolds, who turned himself in on embezzlement charges, the State Police said it could not release the records because they were in a centralized database called the CCRE. Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the records were not printed out and once inside the CCRE, state law prohibited their release because they are considered criminal histories at that point.

Read more about the situation and the questions it raises on our blog: Ugly mug


Talking public business

There’s a phrase that gets bandied about occasionally by public officials when asked by reporters for comment about a particular matter. It’s meant as a conversation stopper; a statement against which no reasonable person could or would argue because it is meant to convey a certainty, as steadfast and unassailable as a the gaze of the Sphinx.

There are several versions of the phrase, but essentially it goes like this:

“I can’t comment on something we discussed in closed session.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong about this statement. But to be more precise, more accurate, what they really should be saying, “I am choosing not to comment.”

First of all, nothing under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act compels officials to go into a closed session. FOIA requires meetings of three or more members of a public body (elected, appointed or a combination) to be held openly, where the public can “witness the operations of government,” as FOIA’s policy statement advises. FOIA lists 44 instances where public bodies can talk about public business out of the public’s view, but none of these exemptions are mandatory. None of them.

Continue reading on VCOG’s blog


Woodrum Legislative Internship update

VCOG will host a celebration of the life of Chip Woodrum at a cocktail fundraising event in Roanoke on Nov. 13. Watch this space for details. Proceeds go to the founding of the Chip Woodrum Legislative Internship.  To date we have raised over $54,000, and notice of the internship opportunity has been posted at half a dozen schools and circulated by several college-related groups.

You can be part of the effort by making a contribution today.

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Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

Fall is finally here, though with the mild August we had, it's almost like the season has been around for a month or more.

Each fall, VCOG pulls together its conference to discuss current trends in open government and newsworthy topics affecting the public access to government meetings and records. This year we will be meeting at the O. Winston Link Museum, next to the railroad tracks in downton Roanoke.

We will cover issues of open government and open data, noting how the two complement and sometimes diverge from one another. We'll talk about FOIA fees and the way local government websites have evolved. We will also hear from the director of the newly created Ethics Advisory Council.

As always, because this is VCOG main fundraising event of the year, we are looking for event sponsors, as well as attendees. Last year we raised nearly $7,300 and we are hoping to raise at least that much again this year. Click here to visit our donations and registration page.

I hope to see you there!

Megan Rhyne
VCOG Executive Director

Last call for nominations

The deadline for nominations are being accepted for VCOG’s Freedom of Information Awards, to be presented in the fall of 2014 has been extended. Entries should be submitted by Oct. 6, 2014, by filling out the form on our website or by mailing the same information to VCOG, P.O. Box 2576, Williamsburg VA  23187.

Awards are presented each year to citizens, media and government for their efforts in keeping Virginia state or local government open and accountable to the public duruing the past year. Award winners will be honored at our annual conference, Nov. 14 in Roanoke.

The Richmond problem

The City of Richmond has been reeling for several months over audits, severance packages, stadium proposals and defamation lawsuits. In the midst of it all, the city’s chief administrative officer Byron C. Marshall abruptly resigned in mid-September. Naturally, the public and media were interested in what prompted the sudden turn of events, so many asked for records related to the departure. All requests were turned down under FOIA as personnel records.

Along the way, reporters discovered that in order to find out information for themselves, city council members had to sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to disclose what they were told. Some council members did not sign and so were not briefed.

The city refused to disclose the confidentiality agreement, saying it was protected both as a personnel record and as attorney-client communication. Both reasons are inapplicable, in VCOG's opinion and as pointed out by the Richmond Times-Dispatch: it’s not a personnel record because the confidentiality agreement itself -- which, if it contained information about Marshall’s performance would defeat the very purpose of having a confidentiality agreement -- is not about a particular employee; and it’s not attorney-client privilege simply because an attorney prepared it (that would make every contract drafted by an attorney off-limits).

Fed up with the lack of transparency, former Richmond School Board member Carol A. O. Wolf filed suit against the city claiming multiple FOIA violations. Read the complaint here and stay tuned . . . . 

FOIA Council updates

It wasn’t a long meeting, so it shouldn't take but a minute or two to read the tweets from the Sept. 16 FOIA Council meeting.
VCOG on Storify
And for a comprehensive wrap-up:
Open Virginia Law

Open government in the news

Open government innovator Waldo Jaquith has posted all 1.7 million Virginia corporation records, sorted by age. “It’s still very crude, but you can see a list of all Virginia businesses,” Jaquith tweeted Sept. 11....A UVA law professor, Brandon L. Garrett, surveyed 180 Virginia law enforcement agencies and found that nearly one-third of them had no written interrogation policies, and only a handful required recordings. Data was accumulated by students at the school’s Innocence Project Student Group using FOIA. Eleven agencies refused to provide the policies they said they had....Suffolk City Councilman Mike Duman stepped in it when he said he personally did not want the Joint City/School Task Force to meet publicly, as was advised by the city’s attorney, because, “it’s easier to have a conversation when you don’t necessarily have to worry about being politically correct”....Under fire for not producing an audit in over 18 months on the job, Portsmouth Auditor Jesse Andre Thomas blamed leaks to the Virginian-Pilot for hampering his efforts. This theory, as well as council’s reasons for keeping Thomas on board, were revealed via a board member’s secret recording of the council’s closed meeting....A reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau was pulled aside and told she was being barred from attending Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s press conference on expanding medical coverage Sept. 8. After 10 minutes, guards eventually allowed Kathryn Watson into the room where approximately 200 people were gathered....Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the formation of a blue-ribbon panel to study ethics reform, as well as redistricting and the rule against allowing Virginia’s governors to serve consecutive terms. The panel will be co-chaired by former Lt. Governor Bill Bolling and former U.S. Representative Rick Boucher. Speaker of the House William Howell and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment reiterated their support for ethics reform and pointedly noted that the legislature has the final say on any reforms....Caroline County approved publishing the names of the top 500 tax delinquents in two local newspapers. The 4,094 people owe $1.6 million in personal property taxes from the years 2008 to 2013....Hampton Mayor George Wallace and Newport News Mayor McKinley Price both gave state of the city addresses at luncheons organized by the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. The events were open to anyone willing to pay $45 a plate. While Wallace also gave his speech to the city council (albeit, a slightly different one), Price had no plans to do so. A video of his speech will be posted online, a city spokesperson said. A similar set-up is planned for Poquoson’s update in October....Speaking of Hampton, for the second time in two years, a speaker was removed from a city council meeting. When a regular speaker at council meetings got up Sept. 10 to once again ask for a resolution related to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, the city cut off the public microphone. When the man continued to speak, he was escorted out of the room. Former Delegate Tom Gear was removed from a meeting in 2012 after demanding answers from then-Mayor Molly Ward....The Roanoke County School Board decided to keep confidential the qualifications and statements of interest of those applying to be appointed to an empty seat on the board. Disappointed in the board’s process, one candidate forwarded her résumé to VCOG so that it would “out in the public view.”
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