VCOG Board of Directors meeting, July 8, 2021

Present: Paul Casalaspi (Vice President), Brian Colligan, Maria Everett, Craig Fifer, Paul Fletcher, Joe Fuentes (Treasurer), Bob Gibson, Stephen Hayes (Secretary), Isaiah Knight, Lawrence McConnell, Bruce Potter, Jonathan Williams. Also present: Megan Rhyne, executive director


The meeting was called to order shortly after 2 p.m.

The minutes of the Jan. 15, 2021, virtual board meeting were approved unanimously.

Rhyne presented the Finance Report, starting with a review of the fiscal year that closed July 1. It as a very lean year, Rhyne reported. Dues in all categories were down, most notably our lawyer. We did not get a contribution from the Woodrum family this year. And we got minimal income from our online conference because most of the income — in the form of sponsorships — was booked in the prior fiscal year. The full amount of budgeted funds from the unrestricted part of the endowment were drawn down, but because there was not a legislative intern this year, the Woodrum part of the endowment was not touched. Rhyne explained that restriction on the use of the Woodrum endowment is self-imposed; it is not a condition set by the Woodrum family. Total income was not quite $70,000, the leanest year Rhyne could ever remember, even during the recession.

Rhyne reported that the up side of the pandemic is that, in the face of such low income, we also had very low expenses, including almost nothing spent on travel.

Overall, we spent nearly $2,700 more than we took in.

The endowment picture is much brighter. Even with taking out the budgeted amount — which was just under 5% of the endowment’s value as of June 30, 2020 — the combined value of the endowments grew by 19.6%. As of July 21, 2021, the total balance was $800,444.

Rhyne noted that the Knight Foundation continues to ask for us to report on our endowment to them. As you’ll recall, they gave us a matching grant of $200,000 in 2006 to establish the endowment. Rhyne has met virtually with Knight to ensure that our reporting is accurate.

Rhyne went over the proposed budget, which included taking advantage of the endowment’s increased value. The drawdown will still respect our 5% or under threshold, but because of the increased value, that amounts to $35,000 in unrestricted funds and $3,000 from the Woodrum endowment. The budget anticipates $88,731 in income and $88,731. The budget was adopted unanimously.

Presentation-wise, Rhyne noted that she has reorganized the order of our income expenses to match up with the accounting codes set up by the bookkeeper.

Rhyne again encouraged board members to join Jeff South, Paul Casalaspi, Wat Hopkins and Rhyne in setting up a recurring payment to VCOG.

Rhyne noted that the bookkeeper is no longer on contract, but he continues to check in with her to remind her of important tax deadlines. He set up an online bill-pay system for us through a service called Melio that is integrated with QuickBooks. Rhyne has been writing checks and doing direct deposits through Melio that respect VCOG’s bylaws. This process confronts the real difficulties we had with Wells Fargo when our officers changed and we had to take people on and off our signature card. With Melio, we have the control to add or delete users who have access to our QuickBooks account.

Rhyne asked the Bylaws Committee to look into amending the bylaws to adapt to electronic payment systems.

McConnell presented the Nominating Committee Report and nominated Josh Heslinga and Jay Speer for at-large seats. Both nominees were approved unanimously.

McConnell also noted that Anita Shelburn will take over a seat held by VPA.

Rhyne then presented the Legislative Update, using VCOG’s annual bill chart for reference. The highlight of the list is HB 2004, which is the bill Rhyne has been working on since last year to get some measure of access to inactive criminal investigative files, even if the final version is not what she would have preferred. Rhyne created a website with resources related to the bill.

Rhyne went over legislative lowlights, both bills and process-wise. She directed members to a series of podcasts on the session she created for Sunshine Week. Rhyne said lobbying virtually was really hard. Rhyne wrote about the difficulties for the 7th annual Transparency Virginia report.

Fifer congratulated Rhyne on accomplishing things under difficult circumstances. Rhyne said working with the VPA lobbyists was both helpful and cathartic at times.

Potter alerted the members to the likelihood that state and local governments will push for more opportunities to meet electronically. He also asked whether VCOG has ever done a transparency scorecard of legislators. Rhyne said she worried about backlash from legislators who don’t like how they’ve been characterized. Knight also noted how a legislator will use a great rating one year to justify bad actions in subsequent years.

Rhyne next gave updates on the FOIA Council study process. One issue is about FOIA fees for which Rhyne created a website of resources on fees in other states. Rhyne has also been talking with the Virginia Municipal League to see what we might agree on. The council has looked at the definition of what constitutes a meeting and decided to not to act. The council has looked at releasing certain disciplinary files of police officers. And the subcommittee is being bombarded with calls from local elected officials to study relaxing the rules for electronic meetings. Potter, who is on the council, lamented receiving those messages. He asked his fellow media members to be on the lookout for electronic meetings gone awry. Colligan noted that electronic meetings do allow for the loudest voices to dominate. Fifer offered opinions from the perspective of a government employee (with longstanding FOIA chops): he noted that it will not be a winning argument (post-pandemic) to say electronic meetings are per se bad. He related that the #1 issue when the governor was considering lifting the pandemic emergency was the impact on electronic meetings. Everett speculated that once the pandemic has waned, some of the demand for flexibility will die down: “convenience doesn’t belong to the government.”

Rhyne noted that she has taken advantage of downtime in the pandemic to create a Substack newsletter and a TikTok account.

Rhyne noted that she has hired Nikkita Rivera, a rising second year law student at University of Richmond, to do some research for us this summer. This led to a discussion about some problems with legislation being drafted by new employees of DLS who don’t have institutional knowledge or experience with FOIA.

Rhyne reported that our website is getting creaky. Our webmaster has indicated we will have to change the site’s architecture by November 22 due to obsolete platforms. It could cost of to $10,000 to transition the site, so Rhyne asked members to keep an eye out for grants, in-kind donations and/or dipping into the endowment.

A discussion ensued about how and whether to pull together a conference and/or 25th anniversary celebration.

The meeting adjourned around 3:30.

Submitted by Megan Rhyne