Transparency News, 11/11/21


November 11, 2021
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state & local news stories
Yesterday, the FOIA Council met to discuss three proposals, ultimately giving its endorsement to all of them. The first is a bill to reform the way FOIA fees are assessed, limiting the rate of pay that can be charged and making a certain number of requests free. A write-up of the discussion from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is below. The final vote was 11-3. Delegate Danica Roem will carry the bill in the 2022 legislative session.

The second is a bill to provide access to completed police disciplinary complaint investigations and that passed on a 11-2 vote. The bill will presumably be carried by Del. Mike Mullin.

And the third, which also passed on a 11-2 vote, is the rewrite of the electronic meetings rules VCOG has worked on with a group representing the press and local government. A patron to carry the bill has not been confirmed, but Del.-elect Elizabeth Bennett Parker, who pushed for a relaxa is a strong possibility.
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State officials who study open government issues are recommending the General Assembly adopt legislation next year that would limit the high fees government agencies are allowed to charge for public records. The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council voted 10-3 Wednesday to recommend a bill from Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William. The vote came after several previous discussions, and after the council heard from a mother in Prince William County who said the school division tried to charge $8,800 for a video of her autistic child being dragged off a school bus. Stephanie Minor, the mother, said the school division backed off the requests for heavy fees after news media reports. "All I wanted to do was see what was happening to my child on that bus," she told the FOIA council. Virginia's FOIA allows, but does not require, government to charge for the "actual" cost of producing public records. Many agencies, from local government to universities to state agencies, have told citizens or journalists they need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in order to get access to records.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Brian Wheeler, Director of Communications for the city of Charlottesville, has resigned from his position. His last day will be Friday, Nov. 19. News of his resignation came the same day that former Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney announced that she had filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleges city leadership wrongfully terminated her employment contract in September. Filing such a charge is usually the first step toward a lawsuit. As city spokesperson, Wheeler’s duties included making statements on behalf of the City, managing public comment periods during City Council meetings, and serving as the city’s Freedom of Information Act officer.
Charlottesville Tomorrow

VPM News spoke with over 20 Virginia students over the past year about direct-to-school debt, and discovered they were dealing with competing policies and procedures and confusing, cumbersome appeals processes. They described a lack of proactive support from universities that had left them stranded and unsure of how to get back to school. VCU also initially paused referral of accounts to the VCU Collection Unit at the start of the pandemic, but resumed last October. Students whose accounts are sent to internal collections face a 25% collection fee on top of the principal.  Records received through FOIA show VCU collected more than $6 million from its 25% collection fee alone from July 2015 through January 2021. VCU’s treasurer Denise Laussade insists they’re not profiting from this. “The 25% was initially established as a cost recoup because there’s staff who are working to fulfill our obligation to the state, which is we must collect those unpaid tuitions and fees,” Laussade said in a recent Zoom interview with VPM News. “And so it's not a moneymaker.”
stories from around the country

Metro is facing a second investigation into circumstances that led to the suspension of more than half its rail cars as two inspectors general seek to determine why a known safety defect wasn’t properly reported and why passengers were allowed to ride on potentially unsafe trains, according to interviews and documents. The Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation and its counterpart within Metro are conducting the joint investigation to determine why the malfunctions sidelining all 748 of Metro’s 7000-series rail cars were not resolved sooner, according to correspondence from the investigation obtained by The Washington Post. The suspension created a severe train shortage that has significantly reduced Metrorail service for more than three weeks.
The Washington Post

The Michigan House on Tuesday approved a ban on the use of messaging apps or other software on state employees’ work-issued electronic devices if the technology would prevent communications from being subject to public record requests. The bill will now go to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk for approval.  Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Johnson has said that Michigan State Police officers' use of an app that erases records of outgoing messages prompted the bill. The Republican lawmaker said the use of such an app interferes with the ability to complete a Freedom Of Information Act request. The Detroit Free Press reported on the use of an app called Signal by some State Police officers in January. The department required any officers with “non-standard communications” apps to remove them by Feb. 10.
Click on Detroit