Transparency News, 11/16/20


 November 16, 2020
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"No matter what day the request came or whether or not the request was clearly specified as FOIA, it was the responsibility of the elected official in possession of the document to make it available ... in the respected time frame for FOIA requests."
I had a wonderful opportunity to serve on a 1.5-hour long talk about FOIA with the Virginia Pro and Washington, D.C., Pro chapters of Society of Professional Journalists. Expertly moderated by Denise Dunbar of the Alexandria Times, the panel also featured Jeff South and Paul Fletcher (both VCOG board members), Evan Watson and Jim McElhatton. We talked not only about FOIA basics but also lots of tips and strategies for making better requests and following through on them.
-- M.R.

Various members of Staunton City Council appeared in court Friday for a suit filed by Councilmember Brenda Mead against the mayor and vice mayor. The suit is referring to a document from the September 10 city council meeting. Mead claims her FOIA rights were violated when she did not receive the document after requesting it via email. The trial began with testimonies from Mead, public officials and the Mayor. Of the more than three hour trial, the main questions were: when was the “official” request made for the document, did Mead make the request as a citizen or a city official, and how long did the mayor have to respond before it violated Mead’s rights. Ultimately, Judge Robin Mayer found that no matter what day the request came or whether or not the request was clearly specified as FOIA, it was the responsibility of the elected official in possession of the document to make it available to Councilwoman Mead in the respected time frame for FOIA requests. The ruling was that councilwoman Mead’s FOIA rights were violated and her attorney fees and court costs would have to be paid. Judge Mayer also said she believes that the FOIA request is not the only issue among council, and there seems to be something much deeper going on.

The division within the Hampton School Board was clear even in how they sat. Ann Cherry, Jason Samuels, Tina Banks-Gray and Richard Mason sat on one side. Chairman Joe Kilgore, Vice Chairman Reginald Woodhouse and Stephanie Afonja sat on the other. Over the past month, a quiet but clear split has emerged on the board, which rarely disagrees in public. According to meeting minutes, it hasn’t held a single recorded, non-unanimous vote since December 7, 2016. The group of four has pushed the board to talk more about the plans for reopening classrooms, saying that communication on the board is broken. Kilgore and his allies say the others want to step out of the board’s lane.
Daily Press

Over the past five years, Richmond Public Schools issued more than 2,200 long-term suspensions at a time when the neighboring counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico combined handed down that punishment fewer than 400 times. The data, obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch through an open records request from the Virginia Department of Education, shows that Black students accounted for more than 90% of the city’s long-term suspensions in that time period. Hispanic students comprised about 5%, according to state reports. White students account for a little more than 10% of the city’s enrollment. The penalty, issued for offenses ranging from trespassing to stealing money, pushes students out of school for between 11 and 45 days, according to RPS’ code of conduct.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Voting in Virginia ran smoothly this election year up to the moment polls closed. Confusion started when the results started flowing in. That’s because the state’s election system wasn’t designed for the 2.8 million early votes cast in the election — a whopping two-thirds of the state’s total turnout. Many localities did not report the choices on those early ballots until late on election night, causing wide swings toward Democrats in a number of races, including the one for president. State officials are now considering changes to the way the state reports election results for ballots cast weeks or days before the election, aiming for a more even-keeled process that concludes as early as possible. 
Richmond Times-Dispatch
stories from around the country

A Pulaski County (Arkansas) judge has ruled Little Rock Police Chief Keith Humphrey violated Freedom of Information laws. Four Little Rock Police Department employees filed a lawsuit against Humphrey in May claiming that he violated FOI laws by refusing to give them their personnel files. On Friday, Judge Wendell Griffin found that he had violated the law and he was unable to justify his noncompliance. In November, the four requested back pay that Hause said the city owed her, the suit says. A month later, Humphrey allegedly opened an internal affairs investigation into the four employees' handling of a driving while intoxicated case. Court records show that the investigation found no disciplinary action was warranted. But a day after Hause reached a settlement with the city over back pay, Humphrey overruled the investigation and disciplined the four for “dereliction of duty.” The suit says that Humphrey issued a written reprimand and ordered counseling for the four.

During an October 29 hearing before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, an attorney representing the Office of the Governor said the department was not in possession of specific data supporting the administration’s revenue claims for truck-only tolls. Former Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, who served on the Transportation Committee, filed a Freedom of Information request shortly after the Lamont administration presented revenue estimates for truck-only tolls to the public in December 2019.
Yankee Institute for Public Policy

The York Dispatch is in a legal battle with York County for information that Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records has stated is clearly a public record. The newspaper first requested basic information about prothonotary office employees — including names, pay rates, job titles and dates of hire — in late July. The York Dispatch sought the information from York County officials and from York County's judiciary but was repeatedly denied by both entities. On Friday, Nov. 6, the newspaper made the same public-information request to Adams, Dauphin and Lancaster counties, to see how those counties would respond. Dauphin County replied that day, indicating it is reviewing the request and invoking its right to a 30-day extension to do so. Adams County also responded the same day, providing the names, job titles, dates of hire, length of service, 2020 annual salary and, where applicable, employment end dates of its prothonotary office workers. On Tuesday morning, less than three business days after the request was made, Lancaster County's open-records officer provided The York Dispatch with the sought-after prothonotary information, including employees' names, compensation rates, job titles and dates of hire.
York Dispatch