Transparency News, 10/23/20


 October 23, 2020
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state & local news stories
I did a a little research on all 50 states and how they handle charges under their public records laws. I used the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press' Open Government Guide, and I also went directly to the statute for each state. My findings haven't been peer reviewed, but they're nonetheless instructive.
  • 13 states do not permit any charges for labor (meaning, copy fees only)
  • 3 states say no labor charges except in very specific circumstances.
  • 22 states allow for labor charges, but have some limits, like a rate cap, the first hour is free, the rate must be of the lowest capable employee, no charges for exclusion (exemption) review; a required fee schedule, etc.
  • 3 are unclear (e.g., the statute was silent on labor and there weren't supporting sources like other statutes or court cases to indicate what the practice is)
  • Virginia is one of 9 states that permit labor charges for every step of the FOIA process, without any of the limits mentioned above, so long as they are the "actual cost" and "reasonable"
Virginia's practice is bolstered by a Supreme Court case (ATI v. UVA) confirming that requesters can be charged for an attorney's time to review and decide whether to withhold the records (that is, a charge to be told no).

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring, government boards and commissions in Fredericksburg and most other localities in the region hunkered down at home and began holding virtual meetings. While other area localities have resumed in-person meetings, there are no immediate plans to do so in the city. But but some Fredericksburg boards and commissions are exploring the possibility. That’s why the City Council voted 6–0 earlier this month to amend the Continuity of Government ordinance it approved April 7 to address remote participation by some members when a quorum has resumed in-person meetings. Councilman Billy Withers abstained out of concern the vote would lead to in-person meetings with COVID-19 still a major health threat. Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw and City Attorney Kathleen Dooley reiterated that the amendment to the ordinance does not encourage in-person meetings. But it does allow any members concerned about their health to continue to access a meeting remotely while a quorum is established in-person.
The Free Lance-Star

The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled Thursday that police in Fairfax County can resume a surveillance program that passively logged the date, time and location license plates pass by one of their automated readers. The decision overturns a Fairfax County judge’s ruling last year that the data collection program violated Virginia privacy laws, which stopped police from continuing the program. The Supreme Court’s ruling focused less on the potential benefits and pitfalls of the programs — police say they help them capture criminals and privacy advocates say they amount to indiscriminate government surveillance — and more on exactly what constitutes an “information system” regulated under Virginia’s computer privacy laws.
Virginia Mercury

The City of Staunton announced updated guidelines involving public participation for the City Council work session and regular meeting scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 22, the special called Council meeting scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 29, and subsequent work sessions and regular meetings of Council until otherwise announced, according to a city-issued news release. These guidelines were developed given the increasing prevalence of COVID-19 cases in the area and the expected heightened interest in council meetings as significant issues come before council in the months ahead and are based, in part, on consultation with Dr. Laura Kornegay, health director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, the release said.  
News Leader
stories from around the country
The NY COVID Alert app unveiled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earlier this month, which the governor touted as a technological game changer for contact tracing, has been downloaded more than 640,000 times — but the governor's office and the Department of Health have declined to turn over more detailed aggregate data that would measure the app's impact. That additional data, which is a matter of public record, would reveal how effective the mobile app has been in tracking the spread of COVID-19 across the state, including alerting people who may have come in close contact with an infected person. There are no laws prohibiting the state from disclosing how many exposures or individual notifications have been documented by the app. The state's own web page for the app acknowledges that none of the data requested by the Times Union contains any personal, identifiable information about users of the app. That also calls into question the assertion by Cuomo's administration that disclosure of the aggregate data would violate individual "user privacy and security," unless the app is recording that information.

editorials & columns
Of all the criminal justice bills passed by the General Assembly in this year’s special session, lawmakers chose to delay one of the most important proposals — a bill that would make police records more accessible — for further study. That’s all well and good if it makes for stronger legislation and, in turn, a stronger law. But in Virginia, “further study” is too often a synonym for “inaction”and lawmakers cannot allow this critical change to public record laws fall by the wayside. The reasoning here is simple: Law enforcement will not willingly release case files — not from a crime last week, last month, last year or last century — so narrow their latitude to keep them from public view.
The Virginian-Pilot