Sunshine Report for October 2019

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
October 2019
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2019 FOI Media Awards, Lunch

Join us in congratulating the winners of VCOG's 2019 FOI Media Awards!
  • First Place, Broadcast Television Stations, WDBJ7, Tim Saunders.
  • First Place, Daily Newspapers, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Patrick Wilson.
  • First Place, Non-Daily Newspapers, Rappahannock News, John McCaslin:
  • First Place, Online News Outlets, Virginia Mercury, Mechelle Hankerson 
  • Runner-up, Broadcast Television Stations, NBC29, Henry Graff
  • Runner-up, Daily Newspapers, The Roanoke Times, Jeff Sturgeon
  • Runner-up, Non-Daily Newspapers, The Tidewater News, Stephen Feleski
Join us Monday, Nov. 18, for a celebratory luncheon honoring their work, as well as the work of reporters, producers and editors all across the Commonwealth who are using public records and meetings to inform and impact their communities.

Details about the lunch -- including early-bird ticket prices -- can be found here.

Hope to see you there!

**The entries were judged by Ron Keefover, executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government. His reflections on the winners are excerpted here.
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Foundations and FOIA
The Virginia Supreme Court heard oral arguments Sept. 11 in the case brought by a group calling itself Transparent GMU against George Mason University and its foundation over access to records on donors. The attorneys for each side fielded questions from the judges on public business, the agency relationship and the dual role of a university employee who also works for the foundation. A decision is expected in the next several weeks. VCOG's Megan Rhyne attended the arguments, and VCOG filed an amicus brief in support of Transparent GMU, which can be found on this clearinghouse page of filings in the case. For a more complete write-up of the oral arguments, read this Virginia Mercury article.
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FOIA Council update
At its September Sept. 18 meeting, which was livestreamed and is archived on its website, the FOIA Council heard about two FOIA-related legislative proposals that Loudoun County said it will be pursuing. One seeks to modernize the current exemption for patron library check-out information to include information on the websites patrons browse on library computers. Another seeks an exemption for the affordable housing loan applications developers submit to a locality.
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Open government
in the news
A Richmond-area author obtained emails through FOIA that showed an opinion piece submitted by VCU President Michael Rao and published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in support of the new Coliseum development proposal was actually ghost-written by a spokesperson for the developer.

Despite complying with a court order to disclose records related to the Coliseum development requested by city activist Paul Goldman, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney filed notice of appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court to undo the lower court order, saying the judge's determination that the records were not exempt as ongoing negotiation documents was incorrect and capable of being repeated in similar situations.

A Virginia resident and the national advocacy group Judicial Watch sued Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax over what they say is the improper invocation of the working papers exemption in response to a FOIA request for records and correspondence related to discussions of rape, sexual assault, Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh.

Meanwhile, Fairfax filed a $400 million defamation lawsuit against CBS Corp. and CBS Broadcasting in New York that claims the network published false statements by two women accusing the lieutenant governor of sexual assault.

The former city attorney for Petersburg filed a defamation lawsuit against the city council and WTVR-6, saying they damaged his reputation. He alleges the council owes him severance for firing him just two years after he took office, and after receiving satisfactory job performance reviews. The suit also says the council and WTVR incorrectly stated that police escorted him out of the meeting where he was fired.

The lawyer representing the plaintiffs challenging Charlottesville's decision to remove Confederate monuments there has sued C-ville Weekly and a UVA professor for defamation over a story about the monuments lawsuit that stated the lawyer was from a large slave-holding family in Virginia. The professor was quoted as saying the family had antagonized black people for generations.

The former town attorney and FOIA officer for Abingdon sued the town in federal court, alleging, among other things that the vice mayor defamed her by saying, “There have been more FOIA requests in recent years because the citizens don’t trust the Town; they don’t trust the FOIA Officer. That’s obvious.”

Emails obtained with by the Washington Business Journal from Arlington County indicated the county police department was close to signing a memorandum of understanding with Ring, the doorbell-camera company owned by Amazon, to expand the department's surveillance capacities.

A former Isle of Wight School Board member told the board's current chair, who is running for reelection, that she should not charge him for the records he requested under FOIA "since this is an election year." 

After initially saying it would cost $100,000 to get the equipment needed to continue broadcasting Martinsville City Council meetings, the city manager announced in September that technicians seem to have worked out problems with the current equipment's wiring.

A member of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors said he will appeal the board's decision not to pay $19,365 for his attorney fees. Ron Frazier said he needed legal representation in the FOIA suit against the county, even though he is not named in the suit, because he was subpoenaed to testify about conveying information to the plaintiff that formed the bases of the FOIA suit in the first place. Compounding the situation, the county's insurance carrier said it won't defend the board during Frazier's appeal because "'appeals' are excluded from the 'cost of defense.'"

Members of the board that oversees the Metro system have proposed requiring future investigations be made public. The proposal comes after the recent inquiry into the former board chair was conducted mostly in secret.

Norfolk Public Schools said it mistakenly paid the brother-in-law of the school board's chair. The brother-in-law, a member of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and a former candidate for school board himself, volunteered with the schools' jazz band program. He said he did not cash the $300 check he received. The school board held a closed meeting, citing the personnel exemption, to discuss the situation.

A nepotism scandal in Richmond led to the ouster of the city's chief administrative officer there. Five of Selena Cuffee-Glenn's relatives held city jobs in departments she oversaw, and her nephew was part of the developer's team working on the Coliseum deal with the city.

A report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission faulted the state's Office of the Inspector General for inappropriately dismissing allegations sent to a state whistleblower hotline. JLARC also recommended the office should provide more information publicly.

In Norfolk federal court, the charges against three men arrested on drug charges were sealed because two other co-defendants had not been detained. Prosecutors finally unsealed a redacted indictment after push-back from The Virginian-Pilot

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority turned some people away from its Sept. 18 meeting, saying the room's 30-person capacity had been reached and telling them to find minutes of the meeting online. Reporters for Virginia Public Media discovered, however, that the agency hasn't updated its meeting minutes since June.

A petition circulating in Appalachia asks the mayor, town manager and town attorney to resign over alleged violations of FOIA's meeting procedures. The petitions accused all three officials of lying under oath about information discussed in closed session, unprofessional behavior and ineffectiveness in their positions.

The Henrico County Police Department invited reporters from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and eventually others, to view the body cam footage taken during an incident in Short Pump where two officers shot a mentaly ill woman wielding an ax in her home.

The entire Warren County Board of Supervisors, as well as multiple top-level county officials were indicted on charges of misfeasance and nonfeasance related to their oversight of the local economic development authority and its former director, who has been charged with embezzling millions of dollars from the authority. 

Virginia Beach officials and the firm investigating the May 31 shooting at a city building conveyed new information on the incident for the first time since June 3.
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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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