Sunshine Report for September 2018

The Sunshine Report: Online
Transparency News from the
Virginia Coalition
for Open Government
September 2018


New this month on VCOG's Blog:

A bit off-topic, but when VCOG's Megan Rhyne visited the New Hampshire statehouse this summer, she thought a lot about Virginia's General Assembly.

Following a move by Bristol city council members to remove one of their own from office (read more below), Rhyne asked one side of the conflict or both to step up to let the public know what's going on.


FOIA Council updates

The FOIA Council added two new dates (noted with asterisks) to its free FOIA "Records" training presentations: 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018
Wednesday, October 3, 2018
*Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Wednesday, November 7, 2018
*Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The training will be held from 2:00 - 3:30 PM in House Committee Room 300A of the Pocahontas Building located at 900 E. Main Street Richmond, VA 23219, near the Virginia State Capitol.  

To register, contact


Bristol officials mum
on removal effort

According to an article in the Bristol Herald Courier, during a break in Tuesday’s city council meeting, council members had a document served on a fellow member, Doug Fleenor, that Fleenor later said seeks his removal from office.

Unknown-1According to the article, there was no mention of the document during the nearly 4-hour public meeting, which included three separate closed sessions, including one for “personnel.”

The city manager, Randy Eads, later confirmed that Fleenor was served with paperwork, but he would not describe or characterize the document, nor would he provide the Herald Courier with a copy.

Meanwhile, Fleenor has said the document accuses him of neglect of duty and malfeasance in office, and he has indicated he likely won’t fight an attempt to remove him. Yet, he has not released the document either.

Read the rest of Megan Rhyne's blog piece (linked above) and the Bristol Herald Courier editorial on the ongoing drama.


Conference reminder

VCOG's next annual conference will take place during Sunshine Week 2019 instead of during the fall. There will be no conference in the fall of 2018.

VCOG newsletter

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Charlottesville grapples with transparency
issues in interim city manager search 

In the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the city council continued to wrestle with the process for hiring an interim city manager.

As reported in July, the original choice for the job rescinded his acceptance of the job offer, citing Mayor Nikuyah Walker's public complaint about the hiring process and his fit with the city.

On July 31, with the mayor absent and another member listening over the phone, the council gave just 10 minutes notice for a meeting to extend an offer to the current assistant city manager, Mike Murphy.

Unsurprisingly, people soon wanted to see the terms of Murphy's contract. The city at first released a redacted version, citing the personnel exemption (which includes a provision saying employment contracts are not personnel records), but finally released the full version, saying Murphy had "waived his right" to a personnel records exemption.

Meanwhile, a city resident noticed that the city did not have a policy allowing for remote participation in meetings. FOIA allows for individuals to listen in but not participate in the discussion or votes. In order to participate as if physically present, a public body must have a policy outlining how and when such participation would be allowed. The city adopted a policy at its Aug. 20 meeting.

Protests at Albemarle school board
meeting raise First Amendment issues

The Albermarle County School Board faced meeting issues of their own when protesters shut down its Aug. 22 meeting. The Hate Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County showed up to oppose the board's attempt to pass a revised student dress code that emphasizes "respect for diversity" but does not prohibit the wearing of Confederate symbols. 

The board chair shut the meeting down, only 10 minutes after it started, when protesters clapped, snapped fingers and continued to speak out of turn.

The board tried a second time Aug. 30 but were again thwarted. According to The Daily Progress, protesters in the lobby began chanting and refused to leave when asked. Six people were arrested and more were escorted out. Others were reportedly prohibited from entering the meeting

"Although officials had the right to remove people who were being disruptive outside the boardroom," The Daily Progress wrote in an editorial, "We join Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government in questioning their decision to temporarily block other members of the public from returning to the meeting."

Open government in the news

Records obtained from a FOIA request revealed a warning from the State Board of Elections to the Hopewell registrar that printing some candidates' names in all capital letters but not others would "open your office up for the loser to potentially contest the election since you didn't handle ballot names uniformly." The registrar insisted her action was OK because the law on how names should be printed was unclear.

A report issued by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance regarding Amazon's push into the public procurement arena across the country specifically noted Prince William County's agreement with the online giant that requires the county to notify Amazon of any public records requests and to allow Amazon "the right to request exemption or redaction based on assertions of confidentiality or proprietary information to the extent permitted by applicable law."

Loudoun County rolled out a new online public records request system that county officials say will make requesting records easier for the public.  The Freedom of Information Act Management System, a GovQA, product can be accessed through, allows requesters to submit and track inquiries, and county staff can communicate with the requester, track applicable fees and deliver the records.

When the New Virginia Majority asked the Richmond police departments for data on stop-and-frisk encounters, they were told the department had no way to "extract the data," and FOIA does not require the creation of a new document. A police spokesman said, however, that it plans to try to provide the information in the future.

A Hanover County high school principal was removed from her position a month before the start of the school year, but no one from the school board would comment on why. Two weeks later, after naming an interim principal, the school board chair said the board was "not blind" to the public's frustration with the lack of details, but still did not provide any.

Abingdon's town council settled a FOIA lawsuit between a citizen and three former council members and the former town attorney. Kevin Sandenaw won a general district court suit against the town that challenged the legality of a letter submitted by the attorney on behalf of some of the council members asking a judge for guidance on how to handle the behavior of another council member. The settlement says that each party will pay their own attorney fees.

An analysis of court data collected by revealed that Virginia medical providers filed more than 400,000 lawsuits over the past five year against patients with past-due accounts. MCV Physicians filed the most, with 43,330, with Inova Healthcare and UVA Health System following.

The man charged in the child abuse death of a 2-year-old in Norfolk had a lengthy history with the court system, but when a WVEC reporter filed a FOIA for records related to John Tucker Hardee's parole, the Department of Corrections identified approximately 100 pages responsive to the request but chose to exempt them all from disclosure.

Poquoson officials said they did not know how much the city's insurance policy would pay to settle an excessive force lawsuit between a city police officer and a woman arrested for public intoxication. Assistant City Manager Graham Wilson said the city has no invoices of how much has been paid to attorneys in the case, nor had he been told verbally how much was paid out.  “The insurance company made the payment, not the city,” he said. “It was not paid for by Poquoson taxpayers,” a statement that prompted Virginian-Pilot columnist Roger Chesley to point out, "Without the insurance coverage that residents pay, Poquoson would be in a world of hurt."

The Warren County Circuit Court recently received an $8,713 Library of Virginia Circuit Court Records Preservation grant to restore records, including the 1932 map of the Shenandoah National Park when it was only a proposal. The map details the 74 property owners on what is now Skyline Drive.

Plans for the proposed new Virginia Beach city hall include an increase in chamber seats for the public from 150 to 300 with capacity to expand to 350. The room where work sessions are held will include a 48-seat gallery.

Moves to encrypt police scanner feeds last month reached into Isle of Wight and Warren counties.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has been holding a series of hack-a-thon events to solve transportation needs. Data about traffic underlying ideas has to come from Projects will then be judged on originality, impact, polish and presentation, as well as the approach used.

King William County Supervisor David E. Hansen was ordered to hand over video recordings of public meetings that he refused to provide to the King William Economic Development Authority chairman via a Freedom of Information Act request. A Richmond General District Court judge rejected Hansen's argument that he had recorded the meetings in his capacity as a citizen, not as a supervisor.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority released the contract for the director of the Reagan National and Dulles airports, confirming that he is the second highest paid airport director in the country. Though MWAA is not subject to the public records acts of Virginia, Maryland or D.C., the agency released the contract not long after catching heat from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton over comments MWAA's board chair made that he saw no value in sharing the contract with the public.

As a part of The Virginian-Pilot’s effort to track deaths of jail inmates with mental illness, students from Marquette University contacted officials in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to find out what information they keep. These requests, which often involved calls to multiple agencies, yielded just eight states that were able to provide any data at all.

Email records obtained by the Star-Tribune through FOIA requests disclosed a conversation between Pittsylvania County Department of Social Services Director Sherry Flanagan and DSS' attorney over a request by the county attorney for a copy of the DSS bylaws. After confirming that the request was similar to one any citizen could make, the attorney nonetheless said he would hold off on releasing the records until he found out why they were wanted.

Louisa County supervisors were intent on finding out who leaked news of a planned industrial park.  It either leaked from someone who had a non-disclosure agreement with the county, or it leaked from the board of supervisors, a supervisor said at a meeting of the Louisa County Industrial Development Authority meeting. The county won't reveal how much it paid for options to purchase property in the affected area, nor about how much it will cost to develop the property after acquisition.

The Hopewell City Council never had a chance to discuss candidates for the vacant city attorney position at its Aug. 13 meeting. Members began arguing as soon as the door to the closed meeting shut, prompting them to abandon the closed meeting, come back into open session and acknowledge that the closed session did not comply with FOIA.

A member of the Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority board complained publicly about a rule that bars members from talking about the agency outside the board room. The authority's executive director said there was no written gag order and members are free to talk if they want. According to The Virginian-Pilot, members routinely ignore requests for comment and rarely dissent or express strong opinions during meetings.

A spokesman from the U.S. Postal Service said "human error" led to the disclosure of an unredacted security questionnaire filled out by the candidate running for Congress against Rep. Dave Brat. A PAC working in support of Brat filed a federal FOIA request for the records, which are usually kept confidential. The postal service apologized to the candidate for the release.