Sunshine Report for October 2017


The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency News from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
October 2017

ACCESS 2017:
VCOG's annual conference

VCOG’s next annual conference will be 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 roundtable discussion with the leaders of the Tennessee and North Carolina open government coalitions comparing their open government laws with Virginia's.

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


Eventbrite - ACCESS 2017: VCOG's Annual Conference

Many thanks to RTD Publisher Tom Silvestri and Executive Editor Paige Mudd for hosting.

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.
  Eventbrite - A Celebration of Maria Everett
A tale of two boards in discord

how_to_win_any_argument_535268917_768The Abingdon Town Council said it will hold a work session to consider a proposal by member Cindy Patterson to create a citizen FOIA board to focus on FOIA requests the town receives, but most members were not particularly enthusiastic about it. One worried about liability, another about micromanaging staff, and another said he just was “not for it.”

It’s not the first time Patterson has been at odds with her colleagues. Judge Danny Bird signed an order in September saying the council violated FOIA’s meetings provisions when three of the members directed the town attorney to send a judge a letter asking how to deal with Patterson, who was then facing domestic assault charges (she was later found not guilty).

The town’s attorney in the FOIA case, Mark Flynn, said the town would appeal Bird's order. The town wasn’t scheduled to meet in time to vote on an appeal before the deadline, so Flynn said he hoped the town would ratify the decision at its next meeting.

The feud between the chair of the Prince William School Board and the division’s superintendent continued when Superintendent Steven Walts asked a judge to toss a lawsuit brought by Chair Ryan Sawyers that argues Sawyers should have unfettered access to the email of his board predecessor. Walts wants Sawyers to file a FOIA request for records, while Sawyers says the emails are connected to his office as he conducts school board business. 

Sawyers later doubled down by filing a petition against the school board attorney, Mary McGowan, over access to email between her, the rest of the school board members and Walts.

Sawyers’ fellow board members fired back by censuring Sawyers for publicly disclosing some of McGowan’s email, which they said was a violation of the board’s code of ethics. The move was discussed in closed session, which prompted one board member refuse to certify that the meeting was proper when they came out of the closed session.


VCOG on the road

In September, Megan Rhyne conducted a webinar on FOIA that drew 320 registrants from more than 160 state, regional and local agencies. Glenn Smith of the Library of Virginia taught a records management class during the webinar, too.

Rhyne gave a FOIA presentation to the City of Manassas on the 20th, and to the Williamsburg-James City County Library Board on the 26th.

Rhyne begins a three-week open-government class for the Christopher Wren Association at William & Mary on the 4th of October.


On the VCOG blog

VCOG's Megan Rhyne posted two informational blog pieces on following the General Assembly from your home or office.

This one is about watching the floor sessions and committee meetings in real time, as well as viewing and searching archived sessions.

This one is about locating bills of interest and then tracking them through the Legislative Information System.


Open government in the news

The former attorney for the City of Petersburg was convicted of lying to police about a supposed threat to city officials that necessitated the cancelation of an upcoming city council meeting. Brian K. Telfair said he received a call from a man who “spoke redneck” making racist threats, but it turned out Telfair made the call himself, using a prepaid cell phone. Telfair told investigators he was under a lot of stress and that city officials were “at each other’s throats.” He made the call, he said, to “preserve the institution of the city.”

Officials representing Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland met behind closed doors to discuss the future of Metro funding. Though they appeared cordial at the meeting’s end, the word afterwards was that there were clashes. Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan both made it clear that they did not want anyone leaking what was said in the closed session. “It was a private meeting, and it would be unfortunate if others who were party to it are discussing its details,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said. 

The Virginia State Unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference filed a lawsuit against Hampton City Schools for the release of information related to a request to rename several schools. Andrew Shannon said the school district did not comply with his FOIA requests and that he has been subjected to “utter hate, hostility and animosity” by those opposed to the renaming. School officials said they responded to the requests in fewer than the five working days set out in FOIA. 

A Franklin County School Board member has been causing ripples among her fellow board members with the publication of her newsletter called The Apple Report where she has been a persistent critic of what she calls the board's lack of transparency. The board’s chair asked Karen Hiltz whether topics on that night’s agenda would appear in the newsletter. When she said no, he replied, “I’m glad to see that you feel that personnel matters and student matters which are to be kept confidential are not for the public benefit.” 

The Chesterfield school board continued to tinker with its public comment period and other rules related to public engagement. Instead of being able to comment on each action item, residents can now speak during two public comment periods on various items. The board is also considering a proposal that would have the  community relations department provide board members with media responses from the school division instead of having them respond individually. 

A member of the Halifax Planning Commission resigned from that board just days before a zoning permit regarding courthouse renovations was to take place. Mike Sexton said he felt the county board of supervisors was excluding the public from the process and he needed to step down from the commission so he could express his opinions personally.

The Portsmouth City Council banned the city’s Redevelopment Housing Authority board liaison from council closed sessions about personnel after the liaison talked to The Virginian-Pilot about a fired employee. 

The Amherst County Board of Supervisors announced it will begin interviewing for more than a dozen appointed boards, commissions and committees in closed sessions. “Let’s see if it has an impact on the number of people that apply for these openings that we have and go from there,” said one supervisor,  which prompted a News & Advance editorial to wonder, “An applicant for a seat on a public, policymaking body might be uneasy about an out-in-the-open interview when he is applying for a seat on a panel that will be conducting the vast majority of its business in public? That simply does not compute.

Suffolk Sheriff E.C. harris said he would add the Apple Watche Series 3, which has cellular capability, to the list of electronic devices banned from the city courts building. Harris said he couldn’t take the chance that someone sitting in a courtroom during testimony could call a witness sequestered in a witness room and allow that person to hear everything in the courtroom, potentially tainting their upcoming testimony.

Several of the Virginia State Police officers patrolling the pro-Confederate rally in Richmond used dark tape to cover their names sewn on to their uniforms. VSP spokeswoman Corinne Geller said there is a policy that requires officers to have a cloth name strip on their uniform, but there is no policy on whether officers can cover that strip up. In 2016, legislation was proposed to make the names of police officers exempt from disclosure under FOIA, and at the time proponents said it would not apply to officer name badges.

A News & Advance reporter was barred from a public forum being held by the private search firm hired by the school division to hire a new school superintendent. The consultant hosted two gatherings on the same night to solicit feedback on qualities the public wanted in a superintendent. In barring the reporter, a consultant employee said he didn’t want the media to publish the community members’ comments before the school board had a chance to review them. The current school superintendent released a statement the next day expressing regret that the reporter was barred. He instructed the consultant to follow the provisions of FOIA in the future. 

Some James Madison University students bristled at the unsolicited text message they received from the Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates urging them to register to vote. The students were concerned that their cell phone numbers had been made available by JMU to the candidate’s campaign, but a JMU spokesperson said student directory information is not exempt from disclosure under FOIA.

It took a while, but finally all four of the localities tagged by the Auditor of Public Accounts as financially distressed were identified. The auditor did not publicly identify the localities, but the two cities on the list were later revealed to be Bristol and Richmond, and the two counties are Richmond and Page.


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