Transparency News, 11/15/21


November 15, 2021
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state & local news stories
The Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot made significant strides Friday in recent efforts to keep Newport News courtrooms open to the press and public. First, a three-justice panel at the Virginia Supreme Court voted to grant the newspapers’ appeal to a closed bond hearing earlier this year for a Newport News police officer charged with murder, meaning the case will be heard by the full seven-member court. Then, a Newport News Circuit Court judge handed down two rulings in support of news media access in two pending high-profile cases. Circuit Court Judge Christopher Papile vacated press restrictions that a juvenile court judge imposed in the Heritage High School shooting case in early October. Papile also allowed the press into an evidence suppression hearing Friday — over the objection of the defendant’s attorney — in the case of the first Newport News police officer killed in the line of duty in more than 25 years.
Daily Press

Courthouse News on Friday received a $2.4 million check from the Virginia Commonwealth, representing attorney fees spent pursuing a First Amendment action against state court clerks. The check for attorney fees came as the result of a declaratory judgment won after a four-day trial last year, and the successful defense of that victory in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue at trial was an old one that is being fought all around the nation — the practice by state court clerks of blocking access to new e-filed complaints until after clerical work is finished. The federal courts and a growing number of state courts provide access as soon as the new filings are received, which matches traditional access in the days of paper. The Virginia clerks fought the First Amendment action by Courthouse News with every possible trick, including denying the existence of internal statistics on delay which in fact existed and were revealed after repeated requests and repeated evasions or denials.
Courthouse News
stories from around the country
A new timeline of events in the controversial National School Boards Association (NSBA) letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland shows that the NSBA was in contact with the White House before sending the letter to President Joe Biden. Emails obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from the group called Parents Defending Education request show that NSBA President Viola Garcia sent a memo to state NSBA chapters on October 12 describing its work against parents who were protesting at school board meetings nationwide. Some of those protests regarded mask mandates and liberal activism within schools.
The Ohio Star
editorials & opinion
“We will replace the entire Parole Board on Day One,” boomed Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin during his victory speech. His promise ties the bow on a gift handed to Youngkin and the rest of the Republican ticket on a silver platter by the Democrats who are soon to be (mostly) out of power. In terms of who’s to blame for this boon that helped Terry McAuliffe lose the election, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and the General Assembly both contributed generously. Instead of delving further, Northam’s administration chose to question whether the state’s watchdog agency had any right to investigate the parole board in the first place. Inspector General Michael Westfall reportedly feared for his job security after the reprimand, and pledged not to dig any further into the parole board problems. The results of a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request by the Times-Dispatch showed that during the month that this investigation of the investigation was authorized, Bennett went on extended leave and instructed court clerks not to contact her with questions.
The Roanoke Times

Responding to a parent’s complaint, the Spotsylvania County School Board voted 6-0 Monday to order school staff to remove books containing sexually explicit material. Banning books is inflammatory enough on its own, but then board members Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg stoked the flames by suggesting that the banned books be burned. Perhaps one shouldn’t be shocked when outrage begets outrageous comments, but it’s appalling that anyone in charge of educating children would even suggest such a thing. It’s not unreasonable to make sure books in school libraries are appropriate for the ages of students served by that library. But it is unreasonable—and un-American—to begin stripping shelves without first defining what is “explicit,” what is appropriate and who decides if a book fits the definition. What one parent finds objectionable, another may not.
The Free Lance-Star

Four years ago, I could not have told you what the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) law was all about. But since becoming part of a board that, in my opinion, is less than willing to be transparent or forthcoming with information, I would now say that it is one of the most important pieces of legislation that has helped me do my job as an elected school board member for the public. When submitting a FOIA request, consider a few of the following parameters: make it concise and specific for the document(s) or information you desire, include specific dates if applicable, keep the request as narrow as possible that will serve your needs, and ask for any potential cost up front. Citizens have a responsibility and a civic duty to request information regarding the operations of public governmental agencies as does the local media. All finances of public entities are and should be an open book to citizens including salaries, contracts, income streams and expenditures. Any publicly elected official who views the expectation to comply with all FOIA laws as a ‘weapon’ used by citizens is clearly not for transparency or accountability. It is unacceptable.
Sherri Story, Suffolk News-Herald

When local hearings went online during the pandemic, observers applauded this “better way to do public business.” But new research from Boston University’s Katherine Einstein and her co-authors found that moving housing hearings online in Massachusetts “did not remedy systemic skews in participation.” Relative to all voters in the community, online participants in local hearings in Massachusetts during the pandemic were whiter (by a 13 percent margin), older (22 percent likelier to be over the age of 50) and more likely to be homeowners than renters (a 25 percent gap). These gaps are roughly the same as Einstein and her co-authors observed with in-person housing meetings pre-pandemic. The only difference is that partisanship went up on Zoom: Republicans were less likely to participate in local meetings online. Local leaders should reckon with the disparities that have continued in the age of public Zoom, because they suggest that lowering barriers to participation by itself will not necessarily lead to more inclusive public engagement.
Michael Hendrix, Governing