Transparency News, 10/18/2018



October 18, 2018


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state & local news stories


The Virginia State Bar seeks comments on the following proposals made by its Judicial Candidate Evaluation Committee (JCEC): proposed amendments to the Virginia Code to exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) the records and meetings relating to the JCEC’s consideration of prospective judicial candidates.  Comments are due by October 20, 2018, to
Virginia State Bar

Boards that govern public universities and colleges should allow students and other stakeholders to speak at meetings when the cost of attendance may change, the state’s Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council said Wednesday. But it’s not a change that needs to be codified in law, the council decided. For now, public comment at colleges’ governing board meetings will be considered a “best practice,” and institutions can choose if they want to abide by it.
Virginia Mercury

Bristol Virginia leaders want to know whether former City Councilman Doug Fleenor committed any crime when he appeared to offer to sell his council seat to Vice Mayor Kevin Wingard during an August telephone conversation. City Manager Randy Eads said Tuesday that he presented information about the phone call to both the city commonwealth’s attorney’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office but hasn’t heard back from either. Following the council’s acceptance of Fleenor’s resignation Tuesday, the city released a copy of the 37-minute phone call Fleenor made to Wingard on Aug. 13 — the night before the council’s Aug. 14 meeting. On the recording, Fleenor persists in almost demanding that Wingard — who deals in real estate — purchase property owned by Fleenor’s father near the intersection of Commonwealth and Euclid avenues.
Bristol Herald Courier

Following a contentious and often heated meeting, the Patrick County Board of Supervisors on Monday voted 4-1 to approve a $3.5 million Revenue Anticipation Note. The note, which functions similarly to a line of credit, will allow the county to pay its bills while awaiting revenue. Supervisors Chairman Dr. Lock Boyce provided the lone dissenting vote. According to a previous Martinsville Bulletin staff report, Patrick County has been unable to meet a number of monthly expenses this fiscal year, such as payroll expenses, due to spending outstripping revenue and an exhausted contingency fund. Some of the county’s major expenses, County Treasurer Sandra Stone said, include significant health insurance-related expenses and a $1.5 million incentive extended to an industry that had planned to locate to Patrick County but ultimately did not materialize.  “I have notes. I can go back and tell you how many times I’ve come to the board and told you this was coming."
Martinsville Bulletin


national stories of interest

Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has filed a libel suit against The New York Times and a member of its editorial board. In a complaint filed Tuesday evening with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the ex-lawman takes issue with a Times opinion piece published just after Arpaio’s loss in the state’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate. The article — “Well, at Least Sheriff Joe Isn’t Going to Congress: Arpaio’s loss in Arizona’s Senate Republican primary is a fitting end to the public life of a truly sadistic man" — was written by Michelle Cottle. Arpaio argues in the court filing that “[w]hile the Defamatory Article is strategically titled as an opinion piece, it contains several false, defamatory factual assertions.” The claims made in the article, Arpaio says, were “carefully and maliciously calculated to damage and injure” his reputation among the law enforcement community, as well as among GOP donors who could help bankroll his intended run for the late Sen. John McCain’s seat in 2020, currently held by Sen. Jon Kyl.

Dark-money political groups are continuing to shield their anonymous donors from public view, despite a recent court order that called for an unprecedented look at their funders. A major disclosure deadline passed Monday with few political nonprofits unveiling any donors, and even some of those that did offer a peek at their backers still left the original source of the donations murky. That means that, as in other recent years, voters will head into the midterm elections with little insight into the anonymous donors who have been free to pour unlimited sums into ads and other mobilization efforts that could help determine control of Congress.

Ecommerce leader Amazon says it will announce its second headquarters by the end of the year. With less than three months to go, the big reveal could come any day now. As 2018 enters its final quarter, only eight of the 20 finalist cities have released their proposals publicly, and of those, three were heavily redacted or incomplete. Most finalist cities cited the same two reasons they couldn’t share: that the city had to maintain privacy to keep a competitive advantage, or that outside, often non-public organizations were the actual entities handling the bid process. Those “non-public” groups were usually a local Economic Development Corporation or Chamber of Commerce. A quarter of Amazon HQ2 finalist cities denied requests for their Amazon HQ2 proposals on claims that proposals are being handled by these offices: Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles. Denver’s proposal is the only one of these to become publicly available so far.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 13 media organizations are urging a New York intermediate appellate court to affirm a trial court ruling that the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association can't sue to stop New York City from releasing body camera footage. In a friend-of-the-court brief, filed Oct. 5, the coalition argues that bodycams won’t increase public trust or accountability of police departments unless the public has access to the resulting footage. The New York police officers' union is arguing the city and police department’s release of bodycam videos is improper because they fall within Section 50-a of a New York’s Civil Rights law — an argument the coalition contends is a misreading of the statute, and, even if correct, would not prevent the discretionary release of footage.  
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press




editorials & columns


By withholding information and barring media coverage, you are keeping the public in the dark, denying them the ability to know what their government is doing in their name and with their tax dollars. Well, when government listens to that message, we also believe we should acknowledge that publicly, too, in part to recognize their efforts increase transparency and also to send a message to other local governments that public transparency is something worth upholding. First, let’s address the LPD under newly installed Chief Ryan Zuidema.
The News & Advance

Here in the Commonwealth, home to some of the country’s oldest newspapers, it’s easy to forget that journalists are some of the heroes of the humanities. During the American Revolution, newspapers played a central role in keeping residents informed about the setbacks and successes of the Continental army. In the early years of independence, the free press staged the debates that shaped our Constitution. Today, as the fourth estate endures the crossfire of national political anxieties, regional journalism remains a critical source of information on subjects that transcend partisan concerns.
W. Tucker Lemon, The Roanoke Times

Adopting an open data policy significantly reduces the number of public record requests that cities receive compared to cities that lack an open data policy. This was the major finding of a study I set out to conduct earlier this summer, to understand the relationship between the growth of open data policies and longstanding freedom of information laws. I found that while the average number of public records requests cities receive is growing significantly over time, cities could save time and money by passing an open data policy and investing in a robust open data program.  As a result of my research, I can say confidently that city officials should allocate resources to passing open data policies and building robust data portals in the face of a nationally increasing volume of public records requests. Access to information is a fundamental democratic right, and given that the benefits of providing proactive access to information brings positive benefits back to cities, it is clear that city officials should be proactively releasing open data that belongs in the public domain.
Alena Stern, Sunlight Foundation