Sunshine Report for November 2019

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
November 2019
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2019 FOI Media Awards, Lunch
Join us Monday, Nov. 18, for a celebratory luncheon honoring the work of print, broadcast and online journalists who are using public records and meetings to inform and impact their communities.

Click the image below for ticket and additional information.

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Everyone can do what Fairfax has done
Fairfax County released its second report on FOIA that is jam-packed with graphics, factoids and statistics tracking the FOIA process in that county.

Fairfax may be larger and richer than just about every other locality in the state, but the basic facts of a FOIA transaction are universal and can be tracked by every locality and state agency, regardless of size or resources. Whether using an off-the-shelf FOIA tracking product or simply keeping up by using spreadsheets or file folders, the data is there.

The data is helpful to the public to see what could be expect when making a request. It dispels some myths -- on both sides of the counter -- while also, perhaps, displaying a practical picture of day-to-day government operations.

It's also helpful to governments themselves as a public relations tool to demonstrate to the public how their service measures up, and in helping FOIA officers when they approach other agencies with help on requests -- sort of like, "Hey, I need these records now so we can keep our average response time down!" Plus, it can reveal choke points in a system that could benefit from tweaking existing processes or developing new ones.
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Open government
in the news
The misdemeanor misfeasance and nonfeasance charges filed against 14 current and former Warren County officials, including the entire Board of Supervisors, were dropped Oct. 28 after a judge found that the charges were not considered crimes under the Code of Virginia. The judge also refused to suspend the board of supervisors while a petition to recall all of the members is ongoing.

The Richmond City Council and Mayor Levar Stoney were at odds over some items on the council's legislative package for the 2020 General Assembly session. One sticking point is a proposal to change to the city's charter to give the council power to exclude unwanted attendees from its closed sessions. Currently, the mayor can send a representative to sit in on the meetings.

The Charlottesville Planning and Coordination Council has proposed dissolving itself in favor of a body made up of staff, saying it hoped to reduce redundancy, and to address community issues "in a public, but more efficient way." The group has been a public body since it was formed 33 years ago.

After a family whose loved one was shot by Washington County police filed a FOIA lawsuit against the county sheriff's office for refusing to turn over related body camera footage, the sheriff agreed to let the family view the footage at the sheriff's office. The rapprochement was short-lived when the family claimed the video they watched did not depict the actual shooting.

Some members of the Richmond City Council expressed concerns over what they see as a lack of public notice and public engagement by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. They cited a lack of accurate meeting minutes, failure to update the website and a decision not to post notice of public hearings in the Richmond Free Press, a free newspaper.

In a court filing aimed at reducing his child support obligations, a Portsmouth school board member cited his service on the board for his inability to get a good-paying job. "I said it precludes me from certain opportunities," he said.

MediaAwardsLogo 2The Virginia Department of Corrections filed a motion to dismiss the federal case being brought against it by a coalition of media organizations who are no longer able to send representatives to witness administration of the death penalty. The state simultaneously argued that a challenge to the two-year-old policy was barred by the statute of limitations and that there hasn't been a material alteration of long-standing policy. The state argued that if the policy were struck down, "states could be compelled to broadcast executions for public viewing."

The city resident behind a Winchester ballot referendum about whether the school board should change from an appointed board to an elected one clashed with the circuit court clerk over publication of the notice necessary before any such vote. The clerk initially said the citizen was responsible for paying the $782.20 cost of placing the notice, which was seven paragraphs long, in the local paper. The clerk later agreed to a shorter notice, which would cost less.

Members of the Virginia Beach School Board sparred with one another after the district's superintendent complained he had been treated unfairly. Members disagreed over whether a meeting to discuss his grievance should have been held in closed session. Eventually the council agreed they would "not do it again," even though they still did not acknowledge whether the meeting was closed when it shouldn't have been.

Email obtained by the Washington Business Journal showed the efforts Governor Ralph Northam and state economic development officials went through in an attempt to lure Apple to open a 4 million-square-foot campus in Northern Virginia.

Email obtained by The News & Advance gave some insight into why a majority of the Amherst Town Council members voted to expel another member, Janice Wheaton. Some emails showed Wheaton's attempts to have her comments at meetings written into the minutes, while others show frustration by board members over Wheaton's alleged poor treatment of staff.

The company seeking to develop a new arena and the surrounding area of Richmond rejected attempts by the Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission to reveal whose name will be put on the new venue.

Meanwhile, the VCU Health System rejected a request to disclose records related to the VCU president's public statement -- without consultation with the Board of Visitors -- that the university "endorsed" the Navy Hill redevelopment project.

The city attorney for Hopewell informed the city's constitutional officers that city staff will no longer assist them with FOIA requests. The attorney claimed staff workload has increased and that most constitutional officers already had appointed themselves as their own FOIA officers.

Not long after a Shenandoah County Circuit Court judge recused himself from hearing the petition to remove Strasburg Mayor Richard Orndorff Jr. from office, the mayor's problems escalated when the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Culpeper office charged him with four counts of food-stamp fraud and two counts of obtaining money by false pretense.

The Hallwood town clerk was indicated on 65 felony county of embezzling from the town. The clerk came under investigation when, a few days before an audit of the town's finances was set to begin, the clerk's vehicle, which contained town financial records, burned.

Augusta County refused to release information related to the confidential settlement it reached with its former fire and rescue chief.

Charlottesville announced it will begin posting the city police department's policies and general orders to the city's website.

Meanwhile, the city and the fledgling citizens' police oversight board argued over the entity's bylaws and a supporting ordinance. Compromise was reached on some issues. The proposal allows members to be appointed in a closed meeting of the city council, and review board members must sign a non-disclosure agreement with respect to certain police materials they come in contact with.

The clerk of the Portsmouth General District Court resigned without warning in mid-October, saying his continued presence in the office would not "help the situation." The Office of Executive Secretary declined to elaborate, calling it a personnel matter. Meanwhile, the OES' executive director told legislators at an Oct. 21 hearing that 131 out of the state's 192 court offices were understaffed.

Virginia Beach Police corrected and clarified their timeline of the events of the May 31 mass shooting at a city building. The update came after The Virginian-Pilot scrutinized the timeline presented by police and sent a series of questions about the shooting update provided to the media, families and City Council.

Records obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed that, contrary to the GRTC spokeswoman's claim that an Oct. 8 bus accident that killed a pedestrian was a first, there had in fact been another bus-pedestrian accident last year.

MediaAwardsLogo 3Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. sent a cease-and-desist letter to Politico, calling an article about his alleged self-dealing false and defamatory.

A Charlottesville judge dismissed the $1.7 million defamation lawsuit brought against C-Ville Weekly by one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that challenges Charlottesville City Council's vote in 2017 to remove a Confederate memorial. The plaintiff claimed the article portrayed him as being a racist, causing him emotional distress, humiliation, professional and business harm. The judge said neither the article nor the quotes in it were defamatory, plus, the court said, the plaintiff was a limited public figure, which would require him to prove "actual malice."

A candidate for Senate in Chesapeake and Suffolk said she was still in the race, despite having earlier claimed to be exiting the race after The Virginian-Pilot published her age in an article.

Records obtained by WWBT showed that none of the unclaimed money turned over to the Hanover County Sheriff's Office has been given to the State Literary Fund.

The Smyth County citizens who sued the county board of supervisors over alleged violations of FOIA have asked the Supreme Court of Virginia to either compel the county to file an answer or to decide the case without it. The case, which centers around a meeting held to dissolve the Smyth-Bland Regional Library, has been languishing at the state's high court for 18 months.

A federal judge in Norfolk presiding over a gang conspiracy trial ordered that juror names not be disclosed to the public or the defendants.

A committee of the Suffolk School Board began examining how board members receive materials for matters on the board's meeting agenda. One board member said he felt unprepared to vote on some matters because he had received the agenda packet only a few hours before the meetings.

Frederick County launched a website detailing various transportation projects ongoing in the county. The site includes maps, photos, design plans and basic information on costs, contractors and county staff involved in the projects. The county also launched a podcast called "Life at the Top." The podcast first aired in the spring but did not become a regular feature until October.
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We are excited to announce the data and location for our 2020 Annual Conference:

March 20,
Court Square Theater, Harrisonburg

Watch this space for details as they develop.

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Office supply list on Smile.Amazon

You know what's as valuable as your membership dues and financial gifts? Office supplies! We've created a list of everyday office supplies (and a few wish-list items) on Amazon Smile. Next time you're shopping on, find VCOG's "charity list" and keep us rolling in paper and ink (and stamps, and file folders, and...).

Click here to select VCOG as your AmazonSmile charity.
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VCOG is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. TIN 54-1810687
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Virginia Coalition for Open Government
P.O. Box 2576
Williamsburg, Virginia 23187

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