Sunshine Report for November 2017

The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency News from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
November 2017
VCOG, the governor, Charlottesville and
the Unite the Right rally

VCOG sent a letter to the governor asking his office to be more forthcoming with information related to the Aug. 11-12 rallies in Charlottesville.

830759682Citing precedent from the panel that reviewed the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, VCOG asked the governor to release what records he could, to make the meetings of the review task force open to the public, and to allow for some sort of public comment.

In a prompt, but prickly response, the governor’s office pledged to release records after law enforcement and the task force “have completed a full review.” The letter also said the City of Charlottesville has refused to provide information about the events surrounding the Unite the Right rally to a state review panel and accused unnamed sources of “trying to undermine the [task force’s] work for their own parochial reasons.”

Tim Heaphy, the independent investigator appointed by the city, said he and state officials are working on an information-sharing agreement, while Charlottesville officials, in response to a FOIA request for FOIA requests, said the city had not received any requests for records under the act from the state.


ACCESS 2017: Just 2 weeks away!

VCOG’s annual conference is Nov. 16 at the Richmond Times-Dispatch building.

We will feature panels on reporters who now handle government communication, the pressures front-line FOIA workers feel from management, and a discussion with the leaders of the Virginia and North Carolina open government coalitions about the differences in their open government laws.

We're also thrilled to welcome comedian and politcial humorist Beau Cribbs as our keynote presenter!

Eventbrite - ACCESS 2017: VCOG's Annual Conference

Please join the Board of Directors of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government for a dinner celebrating the retirement of Maria J.K. Everett, longtime attorney for the House General Laws Committee and first director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. Maria retired Aug. 1.

We're having a 1-day sale today, so don't delay!

  Eventbrite - A Celebration of Maria Everett

VCOG announces
annual award winners 

VCOG is pleased to announce its 2017 open government award winners.
Citizen winner: Progress Virginia for its comprehensive but no-frills live streaming of General Assembly committee meetings during the 2017 session.

Media winner: The News Leader of Staunton for its series on pharmacy/pharmacist inspections that prompted the Department of Health Professions to make violations easier for the public to find.

Read more about the award winners here.

The winners will be recognized at VCOG’s annual conference, Nov. 16, in Richmond.


Voting yes on recorded votes

voteTransparency Virginia, a volunteer group of lobbyists and advocates, in partnership with VCOG sent a survey out to every person listed on the State Board of Elections website as a candidate for next week’s House of Delegates election asking this question: Would you support amending the House rules to require a recorded vote (by name) for motions to table (defeat) bills in committee and subcommittee? Here’s who voted “yes.” 


 On the VCOG blog

New this month from the Truth in the Field Blog“Time should be on your side,” by VCOG board member Shelley Kimball, offers tips on expediting FOIA requests, from checking first to see if the information you want is online to being as specific as you comfortably can when requesting records.


VCOG on the road

VCOG’s Megan Rhyne completed teaching her fifth class at William & Mary’s continuing education organization. Rhyne demonstrated how citizens can keep track of legislation and committee meetings during the General Assembly session and also went over how local and state governments can be monitored through use of Virginia's Freedom of Information Act’s records and meetings provisions.

Rhyne as VP

VCOG’s Megan Rhyne was elected Vice President of the National FOI Coalition at the organization’s annual conference in Nashville, Oct. 13.

Aiding Virginians every day

VCOG fielded at least 37 inquiries on FOIA and access during the month of October. More than half of the requests came via email, with citizens asking 47% of the questions, media 39% and government or students asking the remaining 14%. More records-specific questions were fielded than meetings, 43% vs. 19%.



Open government in the news

The Abingdon Town Council ratified its attorney’s decision to appeal a ruling by retired Judge Danny Bird that three of the council’s members violated FOIA’s meetings provisions by jointly sending a letter to another judge asking what could be done about a fellow council member who then had criminal charges pending against her (the charges were dropped). Because of the timing of the appeal deadline and the town’s next meeting, attorney Mark Flynn, perfected the appeal two weeks before the town could vote on it.

The Franklin County Board of Supervisors said it was not required to take a public vote to waive the lease amount due from the YMCA in monthly rent. The board reached consensus on extending the grace period in a closed meeting, the county administrator confirmed, but categorized the action as “administrative direction,” rather than an alteration of the contract.

Nottoway County Administrator Ronnie Roark and Richmond-area animal rights activist Eileen McAfee reached a settlement following a judge’s ruling in September that Roark violated FOIA by failing to turn over records of complaints against a particular animal control officer. Roark will have to pay more than $3,500 in court costs and fees, and he has six months within which to attend FOIA training. McAfee rejected a request to make the training optional based on Roark’s schedule and also a proposal to make the settlement confidential.” Meanwhile, the county board of supervisors found itself in the hot seat when it was revealed the board approved paying $2,000 in “critical” animal shelter violations without any public discussion.

Approximately five weeks after the Virginia Department of Transportation publicly announced it had launched an audit of the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, airport employees exchanged text messages remarking on then-executive director, Ken Spirito, shredding documents. “Wow Ken is shredding shredding shredding,” one wrote. “This is getting out of hand!” wrote another. Spirito’s attorney insisted any shredding was done as a part of his client’s “routine job duties.”

The Richmond City Council rejected a proposal offered by two council members that would have asked the state legislature to amend the city’s charter to limit the mayor’s right to attend the city council’s closed sessions.

Calling for patience as his office works through a process, Pittsylvania County Sheriff Mike Taylor said he has explained to his deputies the differences between public meetings and being in a court of law. The difference matters since citizens were prevented from bringing in recording devices to a planning commission meeting, even though FOIA specifically allows recording, because the courtroom where the meeting was held does not allow them. Several years ago, FOIA was amended to say that meetings can’t be held in places that bar recording devices.

The State Corporation Commission has proposed a change in its fee structure for copies of records, from a flat 50 cents per page down to free for up to 25 pages, $10 for 26 to 50 pages, and $20 for 51 pages or more.

Morale aboard a US warship operating in the Pacific reached such a low ebb that one sailor described serving aboard the ship as being akin to being on “a floating prison,” according to command climate surveys, featuring hundreds of pages of anonymous comments from sailors, obtained via the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Danville City Council stood by its decision to hold a council retreat at a South Boston resort 45 minutes away, which was expected to cost about $8,000. The meeting was publicly advertised but was not specifically meant for the public, Mayor John Gilstrap told the Register & Bee. Holding retreats in the city limits makes it too easy for members to duck out, Gilstrap added. Members need the undivided attention of each other to build working relationships. Former Mayor E. Linwood Wright dismissed VCOG’s Megan Rhyne’s concerns with the optics of effectively meeting out of the public eye and he faulted the Register & Bee for not sending a reporter to the retreat.

Petersburg City Council tabled further discussion about beginning city council meetings with a prayer led by local clergy. The council has been opening meetings with a moment of silence.

Some incumbent candidates for the House of Delegates said they will introduce legislation in 2018 to restrict the ability of political groups to get student contact information after a progressive group based in California obtained tens of thousands of student cell phone numbers and sent text messages reminding them to register to vote. Officials at JMU, Redford, Virginia Tech and VCU released the information in response to FOIA requests from NextGen America. Student directory information has long been publicly available; its release is specifically allowed by the federal Family Educational & Rights Privacy Act and and is not necessarily exempt under Virginia’s FOIA. Delegates Randy Minchew, Tony Wilt and Joseph Yost, all made public comments that they want to limit release of this type of information.

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