Sunshine Report for September 2019

Virginia Coalition for Open Government
The Sunshine Report
September 2019
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Claim settlement amounts
VCOG is researching possible legislation to combat a problem detailed by The Roanoke Times of governments approving settlement claims made against them but not divulging how much the government (or its insurance company) will pay. Since the 1990 case LeMond v. McElroy, the financial records (e.g., checks, requisition orders) detailing how much was paid in a settlement has to be disclosed, even if the rest of the settlement's terms are confidential. In Franklin County, however, the settlements are approved through the insurance risk pool's online portal so no financial records are generated. The county's attorney has taken the position that without financial records of the settlement, the amount doesn't have to be disclosed. The administrators in Rockbridge and Pulaski Counties however, provided The Roanoke Times with the amounts they had paid to settle cases, even though they didn't have the records, either.
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FOIA Council's phishing expedition
VCOG submitted extensive comments to the FOIA Council subcommittee studying phishing attacks against government agencies.

The subcommittee met Aug. 21 to discuss proposals offered by the City of Portsmouth, as well as to hear presentations from the Virginia State Police and VITA, which provides information technology services for state agencies. Both presentations highlighted the fact that the contact information bad actors use to perpetrate phishing schemes (one of which netted a scammer $600,000 from Spotsylvania's school superintendent who thought he was paying an invoice for a new, blue football field at one of the high schools) comes from multiple, public sites.

The subcommittee backed away from some of Portsmouth's original proposals, but new council member Sterling Rives (the former county attorney for Hanover who took over the local government attorney slot on the council from Fredericksburg City Attorney Kathleen Dooley when her term expired in July) said he wanted to further explore one of them: requiring a state ID for electronic (and perhaps other) FOIA requests.

Also at Rives' suggestion, the committee agreed to research the possibility of allowing personal phone numbers to be redacted from public records.
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If it walks like a duck...
An opinion from the Office of the Attorney General determined that the Tourism Council of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance is a public body subject to FOIA. The council's attorney said the entity was never intended to be subject to FOIA so it wouldn't be burdened by it, but the AG's office pointed out (as VCOG had back in April when the issue first arose) that "the creation, membership, function, and termination of the Tourism Council are controlled by the General Assembly," making it a public body. The opinion also found the council's administrative arm, the Historic Triangle Office of Marketing and Promotion, is also subject to FOIA.
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Open government
in the news
A majority of Charlottesville City Council members agreed to adjust their credit card spending procedures to be more transparent, even though some members and the city attorney pushed back against the negative impression created by the stories reported by The Daily Progress detailing each council member's and general city employee spending.

More than nine months after receiving a request for the Coliseum-area redevelopment plan, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney released it on Aug. 5. The Richmond City Council said it would hire its own consultant to review the $1.5 billion proposal.

Town of Amherst residents circulated a petition asking the Virginia General Assembly to amend the town's charter to delete the council's power to expel an elected member. The council relied on the charter earlier this summer to oust a fellow member without explanation.

Announcing that its superintendent would not receive a $25,000 bonus under his contract, the Richmond School Board nonetheless refused to release the supper's performance evaluation. Without a copy of the evaluation the public does not know whether the superintendent met the bonus criteria.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Virginia State Police to release the operation plan used in the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally complained that the records they received are too heavily redacted. They have filed a request with the judge to require the VSP to black out withheld portions rather than "whit[ing] out sections and, in some cases, entire pages of the Operations Plan, making it unnecessarily difficult to discern where and to what extent material has been withheld."

A Lynchburg-area television station reviewed security plans for police in Lynchburg, Danville and Roanoke to compare them to the one in place in Charlottesville two years ago during the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally. The amount of information the three localities were willing to share or discuss varied.

Despite having been called out four times in the past 10 months for holding meetings without proper notice to the public, the Norfolk School Board had to cancel a fifth such meeting when The Virginian-Pilot pointed out that notice on Friday for a Monday meeting was insufficient.

The City of Portsmouth agreed to again include the public comment period in its broadcast of city council meetings. The city stopped the practice in April when city residents strongly criticized board members over the police chief's ouster. The new rules nonetheless give the mayor more control over how the elected body is addressed.

The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors rejected a supervisor's demand that the county pay the $19,365 legal bill an outside law firm charged him in connection with a 2016 FOIA lawsuit against the county that he is not a party to.

The Virginia State Crime Commission set a three-hour public comment period when it held its two-day hearings on possible reform of gun laws. Individuals had two minutes to speak, while representatives of groups had four minutes. The commission is also accepting written comments, but because the Crime Commission is exempt from FOIA, the commission's executive director has chosen not to make the comments public.

The Albemarle County School Board rejected a staff recommendation to require anyone who wanted to speak at a school board meeting to sign up online and online only. The board opted to stick with both online and in-person sign-up. Said one board member, "I think it [the proposal] sends a message about what we actually want out of public comment, which is that we don’t want it.”

Virginia Tech walked back some of the guidelines it placed on public comment periods prior to proposals to raise tuition. A law enacted July 1 requires colleges and universities to have a public comment period but left it to the individual schools to determine what the comment period would look like. The Tech proposal would have required 7-day advance sign-up to speak before a cohort of as few as three members of the board of visitors. Speakers would be given three minutes each and the entire comment period would have lasted only 30  minutes. After hearing criticism from citizens and lawmakers, Tech agreed to double the comment period and to do away with the 7-day advance sign-up.

Two weeks after rejecting a motion to hold a closed-door meeting to discuss the mayor's second DUI charge in the past five years, the Strasburg Town Council approved a second such motion at its Aug. 26 meeting. The council emerged with a statement condemning the mayor's actions and demanding he provide and explanation and apology to the town's residents. Even though he voted to go into closed session on the 26th, one council member wondered why a closed session was needed when nearly 50 residents were present at the first, open meeting on the same topic.

The Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority members argued over whether to let the city council's vice mayor -- the council's liaison to the authority  -- to sit in on the authority's closed meetings. It is a renewal of an argument that started in 2017 when the vice mayor talked to The Virginian-Pilot about an authority employee who was eventually charged with embezzlement.

Martinsville's mayor said she and the city manager had signed a disclosure statement with the city attorney -- who was being hired to also serve as the assistant city manager -- that requires "any potential conflict which may arise in the future will always be resolved in favor of City Council." The statement was not voted on because it is "an acknowledgment," the mayor said, "Not something that has to be taken action on."

Martinsville also announced that it would no longer broadcast its public meetings, not on the public-access cable channel or on YouTube. The city manager said the equipment was broken and it would cost $100,000 to replace it.

The Frederick County School Board voted to give itself oversight over all student publications. The division's policy and communications coordinator said the policy was recommended by the Virginia School Board Association.
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Office supply list on Smile.Amazon

You know what's as valuable as your membership dues and donations? 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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