Sunshine Report, September 2013


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The Sunshine Report: Online Transparency news from the Virginia Coalition
for Open Government   September 2013

In this issue

Sunshine mixes mean summer never ends

Wrong messages at wrong time

Local government miscues: withheld records & mayor/manager hats

Ft. Monroe committees

Even elected officials have to eat

Open government in the news

Recently on VCOG Blog

Coalition News

Woodrum Legislative Internship
Join us in celebrating the legacy of Chip Woodrum by being a part of our effort to endow a student internship for each General Assembly session, where the recipient would learn about and participate in the legislative process. Please keep Chip’s memory alive in our hearts and minds, and in the minds of future generations of leaders.

VCOG Annual Conference
VCOG's next open government conference will be held Dec. 6 in Williamsburg. Panels will feature timely debate on gift and lobbyist disclosures, as well as Aneesh Chopra's views on the potential of open government data. Stay tuned for registration information.

FOIA car magnets
VCOG FOIA magnets are available for $5 on VCOG's website. It's also easy to add a VCOG membership to your purchase. Once you have your magnet in place, post a picture of it to VCOG's Facebook page, or attach it to a tweet with the hashtag #vaFOIA. 

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Onancock defending second FOIA lawsuit in two years

Apparently once was not enough for the Eastern Shore town of Onancock. On the losing end of a FOIA lawsuit filed by resident Charles Landis in 2011 for failure to produce the  employment contract between the town and the new town manager, the town is again on the receiving end of a Landis-initiated, this time over allegations that the town has not turned over documents related to the termination of the same town manager. Landis claims the town did not provide him with a document asking town council members to sign off on terminating the manager and another asking members to give the mayor authority to hire a new manager.

Mayor, manager or both?

In Coeburn, in Far Southwest, Jess Powers has been wearing two hats: the town's mayor has also been acting as the interim town manager. In late July, those hats got mixed up. In late July he met with two other council members to talk town business but did not give notice or inform the public. FOIA says three members of a public body cannot meet to discuss public business unless they follow FOIA. Powers said FOIA didn't apply because he was acting as the town manager, not the mayor when the other two council members met. Both the town attorney and FOIA Council Executive Director Maria Everett suggested that notice should be given. Powers later told the Coalfield Progress that council appointed him as interim town manager and he was acting in that assigned role during the meeting, which involved an incident at the town swimming pool. He said he acts out his assigned role as mayor during council meetings and ceremonial events, but puts on his town manager hat for administrative needs.
As he sees it, it is no different than when he takes part in a Kiwanis club meeting where he is the club's president.

Greetings, Friend of VCOG!

Summer never has to end

Listen to the songs on VCOG's "Sunshine Mix," part 1 and part 2 and you never have to go a day without sunshine. (Click links if images don't appear below.)


    Wrong messages at the wrong time

Anyone who has been even passingly familiar with the current investigation into the gifts bestowed on Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family has heard that Virginia's laws on gifts are among the loosest in the country. Consequently, there's been a lot of scutiny on all kinds of government accountability, ethics and transparency.

Now may not be the best time to draw attention to anything that makes government seem less transparent. And yet.....

A reporter for the Daily Progress found out that despite an electronic filing system, the state's Conflicts of Interest Office cannot provide effective bulk access to disclosure forms. The reporter was given an estimate of $1,200 to obtain Virginia ABC employee disclosure forms from 2008 to 2001. Each form would have had to be downloaded individually, said Patrick Mayfield, the conflicts office director. Further, "For security reasons, the state could not accommodate a reporter's request to view the records electronically."

Meanwhile, with the release by the Virginia Public Access Project of Richmond lobbyists' disclosure forms, it became clear that many lobbyists divide costs among multiple clients to keep the total amount spent on any given legislator below the $50 cap for reporting: perfectly legal, but difficult to track.

And, despite strong public criticism, the Hanover County Board of Supervisorscontinued along its track to change FOIA to allow more members of a public body to talk privately without triggering the act's meeting rules. VCOG opposes the proposal, which the county wants the FOIA Council to study, and has again written about its objections.

Committees -- the ins and outs of public meetings

The FOIA Council issued an opinion to former Delegate Glenn Oder, now the head of the Fort Monroe Authority, explaining which committees needed to abide by FOIA's meeting rules. In AO-07-13, the council said that committees created by the authority's governing body had to follow the rules for meetings, including providing advance notice, but committees created to advise individuals within the authority -- and not the body as a whole -- did not have to follow such rules. On the other hand, the FOIA Council pointed out, the records of all committees, even those advising individuals, were still public records that might have to be disclosed upon request.

Even elected officials have to eat!

Feel like dining on crab cakes and Cornish hens? How about lasagna and baked chicken? Not so hungry? How about cookies and trail mi? All those items have been on the menu at meetings of the Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach governing bodies, respectively, according to a review of meal records by the Virginian-Pilot. The meals have become a staple of local governments trying to do more and more public business in decreasing amounts of time, though the Pilot noted that full bellies do not always lead to wise decisions: "A tension-packed Portsmouth City Council meeting that involved a dressing-down by a state senator was preceded by veal Parmesean, steamed asparagus and deviled crab."

Open government in the news

Fairfax County has begun posting copies of letter opinions issued by its judges on its websites: searchable and without fees or restrictions. Clerk John Frey and Chief Judge Dennis Smith deserve thanks....Just two years after getting its own historic marker, the Arlington parking garage where "Deep Throat" spilled his secrets to Bob Woodward in the Watergate scandal is slated for demolition....The Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors was ordered to pay more than $53,000 in attorneys' fees to the ACLU related to litigation over the board's sectarian prayers before public meetings. Meanwhile, a local pastor is awaiting non-profit status approval for a defense fund he created to help pay the fees....A national nonprofit group called Liberty Guard attempted to stop the City of Fredericksburg from meeting in closed session with representatives of the Hagerstown Suns baseball team. Judge John R. Stevens dismissed the preliminary injunction request but left intact a claim that an earlier meeting violated FOIA's meeting rules....Chesterfield County rolled out a website designed to inform the public about an upcoming vote on a meals tax to support local schools....The University of Virginia Library launched an online archive of 3,600 news clips provided by WSLS-TV in Roanoke tracking the civil rights era from 1951 to 1971. Another 18,000 pages of anchor scripts will be posted in the next several months....Emails obtained through FOIA led to the resignation of a Henrico School Board member and the investigation of the school superintendent. The messages revealed a previously undisclosed close personal relationship between former board member Diana Winston, superintendent Patrick Russo and Winston's husband, Joe, who had a contract with the school district to provide promotional items.


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