Sunshine Report for September 2020

The Sunshine Report, September 2020


Sept. 10, 9:30 - 4:30

First, we had to cancel our March 20 event and reschedule for May. Then, we had to cancel our May event and reschedule for September. THEN, the venue closed down, so we had to move online. But here we are: virtual and very excited to get together!

Details and registration here
VCOG's Megan Rhyne penned an op-ed in the Virginia Mercury arguing that transparency in law enforcement must be part of any decision to change or even to maintain the status quo.
VCOG joined with the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists
and the Virginia Press Association in a letter to the Newport News City Council to provide live broadcasts of its work sessions, just as they do for their regularly scheduled meetings, and just as other localities in Hampton Roads do for their work sessions. The letter was authored by Jeff South, SPJVA's president and VCOG's board treasurer.
Read the letter here
Henrico supervisor, and VCOG board of directors member, Patricia O’Bannon, has been reappointed to various committees and boards of the National Association of Counties, including serving as vice chair of the International Economic Development Task Force and as a member of the Healthy Counties Initiative Advisory Board, Information Technology Standing Committee, Large Urban County Caucus Steering Committee and Resilient Counties Advisory Board.
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The 2020 Special Session

The Virginia House of Delegates broke new ground when it convened its first virtual session. The decision to meet virtually had a convoluted path. A proposed change to the House rules failed on the first day of the special session because it got a simple majority, party-line vote, but it needed a two-thirds majority. To get around that, House Democrats adopted a resolution allowing for virtual meetings that required the resolution to be read on five consecutive days in pro forma sessions. That maneuvering put the House days behind the Senate, which convened in person on the first day and held committee meetings right away.

Several House members have had trouble signing in or having their votes register. It is hard to see which legislator is speaking at any given time. Voice votes -- with microphones sometimes muted, sometimes not -- are essentially meaningless.

Both chambers are soliciting public comment from citizens and lobbyists, either written or broadcast virtually. This is great for people who would not otherwise be able to attend in-person meetings, but not so great for what is lost.

I tweeted about these tensions in a thread last week and we are working with others to try to improve the interaction and observation that is integral to Virginia's legislative process and all democratic institutions.
-- Megan Rhyne, VCOG Executive Director

VCOG is following a half-dozen bills (some duplicates) and has offered virtual testimony on some of them.
  • HB 5048 (Sickles) and SB 5081 (Barker) would require the Department of Health to make certain information about outbreaks in nursing homes, schools, summer camps and similar public entities publicly available.
  • HB 5090 (Mullin) would require some inactive or closed criminal investigative files to be disclosed upon request.
  • HB 5091 (Rasoul) would require release of some body worn camera footage.
  • HB 5092 (Rush) and SB 5012 (Suetterlein) would require the votes of Parole Board members to be public.

Open Government in the News

James Madison University refused to disclose to the student newspaper, The Breeze, how many COVID-19 cases were in each dorm. The university said the Health Insurance Portabillty and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibited it from doing so, even though HIPAA's privacy rule addresses only the disclosure of individually identifiable information, not aggregate data.

A trove of emails obtained through FOIA showed the state's poultry processing plant operators, particularly on the Easter Shore, forcefully denying that COVID-19 was spreading within their plants and then pressuring Virginia Department of Health officials not to make the outbreaks public.

The Office of Inspector General's report about the Parole Board, which was so heavily redacted that the public knew nothing except that complaints about its review of certain inmates' release were substantiated, was eventually released in full to some Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly, who, in turn, released it to the public. In addition to substantive violations, the report said the board chair did not keep minutes of meetings, as required by Virginia Code § 53.1-139.

Virginia’s State Air Pollution Control Board has created a four-member committee to reexamine the board’s public engagement process. Among the priorities identified by the committee is the public’s ability to address the board rather than just DEQ staff on all regulations and new permits and transparency issues surrounding advice provided to the board by the attorney general's office.

In a brief submitted to Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore, the Virginia State Police again defended the extensive redactions of its Unite the Right roll operations plan. The VSP maintains that the redacted material consists of information of a tactical nature or that contains individual identifying information, and it also continues to argue that, despite the court's order to disclose a redacted version of the plan, the entire plan should be withheld.

A Winchester resident agreed to drop her FOIA lawsuit against the city after the city's attorney admitted that the council was "doing it wrong" when it failed to broadcast the open part of the meeting before and after the closed session. The attorney said the problem was the fault of the city's information technology department.

The FOIA Office in Fairfax County has posted its second annual report, a colorful representation of the county's FOIA efforts this past year, from the average response time to fill a FOIA request, to how much each department charged in FOIA fees, and which month generated the most FOIA requests.

Despite securing a victory in her FOIA lawsuit against her fellow Suffolk school board members in July, Sherri Story claimed in early August that there were additional problems with the way a closed meeting was handled Aug. 6. Later in the month, after Story was awarded attorney fees, the school board indicated it would appeal the July ruling.

Six judges from the circuit court of Prince William County asked the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court to designate a judge from another court to preside over the FOIA lawsuit brought against five members of the board of supervisors. The lawsuit alleges the five broke FOIA's meeting rules when they attended a community forum with the police department about how to respond to a May Black Lives Matter protest. The judges' move is reminiscent of the letter Portsmouth judges sent earlier this year saying they would no longer be able to preside over certain cases brought against the city because of the relationships they had with city employees.

A former chair of the Prince William County Public Schools went to court in late August to challenge the withholding of many of the private messages sent by the school superintendent through Twitter prior to his resignation. The school system claimed the messages were exempt as correspondence, work product and scholastic records, and some were not about public business or even from the superintendent. Some 20,000 messages were said to have been sent to various students in the district.

Two months after they told protesters the city's police department would be more transparent by disclosing some of their policy documents, Norfolk finally posted those documents to its website, but only after The Virginian-Pilot posted a story online about the delayed disclosure.

The Strasburg Town Council adopted a resolution to bind itself and future town councils to provide remote viewing and participation options for public meetings past whenever the COVID-19 emergency order is lifted. 

A Northern Virginia attorney filed a FOIA suit against Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn after being told that records regarding some questions he had about the removal of various statues and artifacts from the Capitol did not exist.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which has been plagued by accusations it operates without citizen input or observation, did not include its annual plan, for which it was seeking public comment, on its website when the site was redesigned. The document was not put back online until Virginia Public Media contacted RRHA about the omission.

The Virginia Mercury reported that the legislation adopted in 2018 to prohibit public release of student contact information may impact the census by making it difficult to identify students living off-campus.

Contact VCOG:  •  540-353-8264