Transparency News 10/21/19



October 21, 2019


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state & local news stories


"[A]lthough transparency is key for the board, a public interview process could hinder recruitment of board members."

Former Augusta County Fire-Rescue Chief Carson Holloway walked away with a settlement from Augusta County when he retired last year, supervisors confirmed Friday. But the county is withholding information about the settlement by using the personnel exemption in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, so the terms of the agreement are unclear. The law doesn't require them to keep the information confidential. The county is allowed to divulge the details.
News Leader

Commemorating the events of 1619 in Virginia was an expensive endeavor for the Virginia taxpayers. State lawmakers put up more than $24.2 million over five years to mark 400 years since the first meeting of representative government, the arrival of the first enslaved Africans and other key historical markers for English North America that took place in Virginia that year. Public records on expenditures this year reviewed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch show Virginia taxpayers shelled out hundreds of thousands on ticketed or private events, public relations firms to lure national and international journalists, hefty speaking fees and donations to Virginia nonprofits. They spent $145,000 to bring artist Queen Latifah to Richmond. And $12,000 on plastic tote bags.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Smithfield Times, first published in 1920, will soon have a new owner. The former publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald has offered to buy it for an undisclosed price and make it an affiliate of Alabama-based Boone Newspapers Inc., among the ten largest newspaper chains in the country based on the number of publications it owns. At the helm for the past 33 of the newspaper’s 100 years have been John Edwards and his wife Anne. The Isle of Wight natives bought the newspaper in 1986. In a story published by The Smithfield Times, Edwards said he and his wife were at the age of retirement but wanted to ensure the newspaper continued to be published.
Daily Press
(NOTE: Edwards was a founding director of VCOG and also served on the FOI Advisory Council)

The clerk of the Portsmouth General District Court abruptly resigned last week, days after officials with the Virginia Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary wrapped up a review of his office. James Verschueren offered no reason for quitting the job he’d held for almost three years, but in a letter of resignation addressed to the court’s chief judge he referenced some unspecified “tension" among his staff. “I have arrived at this decision after much soul-searching and understand that this decision is in the best interest of you, your fellow judges, the staff, this court and myself,” he wrote in the Oct. 9 letter, explaining his resignation was effective immediately. “While I had hoped to give this court ample notice, I do not think my continued presence here will help the situation.” Kristi Wright, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Executive Secretary, declined to comment on Verschueren’s departure. She called it a personnel matter.
The Virginian-Pilot

The Charlottesville City Council will vote on its legislative priorities for the 2020 General Assembly session at its meeting Monday. Among the positions is a request that city councils have the power to set the salary of their members. Councilors currently make $18,000 a year and the mayor makes $20,000 a year. The range is the maximum allowed under state guidelines. “[E]ach locality’s needs are unique and maximum compensation should be a local decision, based on the will of the electorate and the financial resources of a locality,” the priorities state. Proponents of higher pay for elected officials have said the current salary presents a hurdle for low-income residents to seek office. Opponents, however, have cautioned against open-ended salary guidelines.
The Daily Progress

The Charlottesville City Council has released a final draft of the proposed bylaws and ordinance for a police oversight panel that varies in major ways from initial recommendations. The council will conduct a first reading of the proposal at its meeting on Monday. No corresponding public hearing is scheduled. Board members would be required to sign confidentiality agreements related to the contents of an internal affairs file or other personnel record. The process for selecting members would occur in a closed session of the City Council. The initial proposal called for a public interview process and publication of applicants’ names. City Council member Heather Hill wrote that although transparency is key for the board, a public interview process could hinder recruitment of board members.
The Daily Progress


stories of national interest

The Walworth County (South Dakota) auditor faces charges of violating South Dakota law after she was arrested and charged with failing to follow state public meeting laws. Walworth County Auditor Rebecca Krein is accused of violating a law that requires government entities to make documents available to the public when they are used during official meetings. Walworth County State's Attorney James Hare issued a warrant for her arrest last week after he received a complaint that Krein failed to make documents available for an Aug. 6 meeting. Krein is accused of violating a law that requires government bodies to make printed materials available to the public when those materials are distributed to the body or its employees for use during meetings. 
Sioux Falls Argus Leader

A Little Rock (Arkansas) Motel 6 is causing problems for its neighbors as hundreds of police calls have been made over the last few years. The general managers of two hotels right next door said they’re fed up and want the city to take action. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, KATV found out Little Rock Police have been called to this Motel 6 at least 1,098 times since August 2016.

The Michigan Supreme Court isn’t convinced it should review a conservative pundit’s lawsuit involving a false hate crime report and a Freedom of Information Act dispute with the city of Ann Arbor. In a single-sentence order issued Thursday, Oct. 17, the court rejected Debbie Schlussel’s appeal of a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling dismissing her case against the city. Schlussel wanted the city to release the name of a Muslim woman — a University of Michigan student — who claimed in November 2016 a man threatened to light her on fire if she didn’t remove her headscarf. The woman told police she believed the man was a supporter of then-President-elect Donald Trump. Police determined the report was false, but prosecutors declined to charge the woman, saying it wasn’t in the interest of justice. The woman’s name was redacted, along with other information, from the police report Schlussel obtained from Ann Arbor police through FOIA. The city attorney’s office cited privacy and medical exemptions in the act as reasons for redactions, but Schlussel claimed it was politically motivated and an attempt to implement Sharia law.


quote_2.jpg"[The auditor] is accused of violating a law that requires government bodies to make printed materials available to the public when those materials are distributed to the body or its employees for use during meetings."


editorials & columns

quote_3.jpg"A state report card focusing on each state program would put that critical information into voters’ hands in an easy-to-understand format."

This summer, Virginia Beach Public Schools Superintendent Aaron Spence filed a grievance against School Board members Victoria Manning and Laura Hughes, alleging the two had subjected him to “abusive conduct” and contributed to a “hostile work environment.” So says a letter from an attorney representing the two members and a third, Carolyn Weems that was obtained by The Pilot. It says the grievance was discussed during a closed-door session of the board and followed Spence’s annual evaluation. Manning and Hughes told a Pilot reporter that they believe Spence was retaliating for their frank assessment of his performance. The three members also say the closed-door session violated the state’s open-meeting law and should have been held in public.That law gives broad latitude to public bodies to discuss personnel issues in private — a perpetually frustrating aspect of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act — but does not require them to do so. The school district’s FOIA officer declined to make a copy of Spence’s complaint available. The dispute exploded into public view earlier this month when the board engaged in hours of discussion — in open session this time — about how to conduct the people’s business, including comportment with open-meetings laws and how members interact with one another and the superintendent.
The Virginian-Pilot

Despite the current political gridlock in both Richmond and Washington, voters elected lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — to get things done. One of those things is providing more transparency and more accountability over how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent. The federal Taxpayers Right-To-Know Act would require the U.S. government to issue a public “report card” listing the details of every federal program, including costs, performance metrics, the number of employees needed to administer it and the number of beneficiaries. It would also be applicable to programs that provide federal grants, loans and loan guarantees, in addition to direct appropriations. Although there are no earmarks in Richmond, billions of dollars of state taxpayer funds are also spent on numerous programs and initiatives with little feedback to voters on how effective they are in accomplishing their stated goals except in overly vague generalities. A state report card focusing on each state program would put that critical information into voters’ hands in an easy-to-understand format.
Richmond Times-Dispatch