Transparency News 11/18/13

Monday, November 18, 2013
State and Local Stories


Hampton City Council will consider changing how School Board members are elected to represent Hampton schools after the May elections next year. A recent five-month study by a committee of 11 people concluded that School Board members should no longer be elected by districts, but instead be elected to hold at-large seats. Some feel this would make the election easier to understand for voters. "I think it would be much less complicated for voters," said Hampton School Board member Phyllis Henry. "I don't think it will make a huge difference in the complexion of the city or its representation."
Daily Press

David Wasserman is the 29-year-old wunderkind political analyst and self-described "quant-politics nerd" who serves as the U.S. House editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. His precinct-level knowledge of Virginia politics, statistical savvy, and obsessive bird-dogging on Twitter of election bureaucrats have been key factors in bringing problems with the vote-counting to light--and getting them corrected. Tweeting as @Redistrict, and armed with spreadsheet data he compiled throughout the vote-counting process, Wasserman began sounding alarms in real time, challenging officials' initial declarations that all ballots had been counted in certain areas. He crowd-sourced his findings, relied on tips, and shared a Google document with others who were able add insight and context. Discounted at first, Wasserman's efforts ultimately led election officials--who, he's quick to note, set their own high standards for transparency and engagement--to uncover uncounted ballots in certain precincts.
Columbia Journalism Report

Pretty soon, every tree on the Virginia Highlands Community College campus will be identified, cataloged and mapped using geospatial technology and the hard work of students. Students in this semester's Plant Life of Virginia class, taught by Kevin Hamed, associate professor of biology, have been tramping around campus armed with GPS units and phones with GPS apps. Last week, students mapped a stand of white pine trees near the heart of campus.
Herald Courier

As anticipated, James City County’s Jim Icenhour petitioned the Circuit Court Friday for a recount of the Nov. 5 election, in which challenger Kevin Onizuk won the Jamestown District Board of Supervisors seat by 30 votes. Attorney Michael Heikes filed the petition in Williamsburg-James City Circuit Court. Icenhour said Friday that within seven days, Chief Judge Richard AtLee will set a date for a preliminary hearing that will specify the details of the recount. He anticipates the hearing some time next week.
Virginia Gazette

A few eyebrows were raised Monday night when Halifax County School Board Chairman Kim Farson said trustees had discussed the rat droppings incident at Halifax County Middle School behind closed doors following a school board meeting in July.  Since that subject does not fall into an allowed category for closed session discussion, The Gazette-Virginian questioned Farson this week on how school board members justified discussing the matter behind closed doors. According to Farson, the discussion involved much more than rodent droppings including personnel issues, so acting on the advice of the school board attorney, they treated the issue as they would a personnel matter.
Gazette Virginian

Private attorneys representing the office of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and other government officials grappling with federal and state investigations of McDonnell’s interactions with a wealthy political benefactor have now charged taxpayers more than $575,000. According to invoices released by McDonnell’s office Friday, two private firms representing McDonnell and his staff racked up more than $331,000 in fees in July, August and September.  That came on top of $244,000 the firms had charged earlier in the summer.
Washington Post

National Stories

The Nevada Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that found information about public employee retirees sought by the Reno Gazette-Journal is public information. In a unanimous decision written by Justice Ron Parraguirre, the court said concerns raised by the attorney for the Public Employees Retirement System about the potential for identity theft were hypothetical and speculative. The lower court did not abuse its discretion in ordering PERS to provide the requested information to the extent that it is maintained in a medium separate from individuals’ files, he said in the decision.
Las Vegas Review-Journal

What constitutes a 24-hour notice under Iowa’s open-meetings law? That question became a point of contention Thursday when the Iowa Public Information Board dismissed a complaint brought by Jerry Niichel claiming the city of Sanborn, in northwest Iowa, conducted a meeting in violation of state law last month. Keith Luchtel, the board’s executive director, recommended the complaint be dismissed on the grounds that a violation did not take place because city officials indicated a notice was posted on a bulletin board at 3 p.m. one day before the City Council conducted a special meeting at 5 p.m. Oct. 16. “There appears to be no question … that the city has met the requirement (of Iowa’s open-meetings law),” Luchtel wrote in his proposed decision. The board members present at Thursday’s meeting voted to approve the recommendation to dismiss the complaint. That drew a protest from state Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider, who questioned whether the 24-hour notice provision was met because the room containing the bulletin board was closed for 15 of the 26 hours that the advance notice was posted, failing to meet the law requirement that the notice posting be in a designated place “easily accessible to the public” for at least 24 hours before the meeting.
Quad City Times

The Government Accountability Office has criticized the group that administers the District’s school voucher program, saying the agency provides “incomplete and untimely information” about schools to participating families, and calling for both internal improvements and a helping hand from outside agencies. In one example cited in its 80-page report on the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, the GAO noted that a directory intended to help parents pick among schools wasn’t published until the academic year was almost over.
Washington Times

The FBI is warning of a campaign by a mysterious Internet hacking group to breach numerous federal agencies’ computer systems and the resulting theft of thousands of people’s personal information. According to a memo obtained by Reuters, hackers associated with Anonymous exploited a flaw in Adobe Systems’ ColdFusion software -- used to construct websites -- to accomplish the break-ins. Among the affected agencies were the U.S. Army, Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services, although the FBI memo reportedly warns the damage could be far more widespread.
Fox News

Fueled by the Edward Snowden scandal, more Americans than ever are asking the NSA if their personal life is being spied on. And the NSA has a very direct answer for them: Tough luck, we're not telling you. Americans are inundating the National Security Agency with open-records requests,leading to a 988% increase in such inquiries. Anyone asking is getting a standard pre-written letter saying the NSA can neither confirm nor deny that any information has been gathered.
USA Today


Virginian-Pilot: Ordinarily, a rectangular piece of metal would make a poor boomerang - except, it appears, when it bears the letters "ICUHAJI." That's the message on a set of personalized license plates that keeps winging its way through the halls of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and Chesapeake Circuit Court. Sean Bujno says he intended no offense with the plates. Nevertheless, the word is viewed as a slur by a significant number of Muslims and Arab Americans. The DMV should stand by its revocation on those grounds. If Bujno takes the matter to court again and ultimately prevails, the state will find itself in a difficult position it must resolve. If the state can't draw up rules for the issuance of personalized plates that meet the constitutional test, the state should toss the option by the wayside and leave it there. Otherwise, these time-consuming, costly and divisive disputes will just keep boomeranging.

Roanoke Times: Charlotte Moore says the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors should do its work courteously and honorably; members should treat each other respectfully, focus on issues and eschew personal attacks. The Cave Spring supervisor introduced a resolution last week asking members to adopt six standards of conduct to reflect those group values. It passed, in amended form, on a 3-2 vote. Yes, the Standards of Conduct Moore offered are unobjectionable. So unobjectionable they did not warrant the lengthy debate that ensued. They hardly warranted debate at all. If everyone on the board has embraced them so thoroughly and lives by them so faithfully, there really should be no objection to formalizing them.

Roanoke Times: The count is in, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, but there’s nothing final about the results in the race for Virginia attorney general. Democratic state Sen. Mark Herring has declared himself the winner. Understandable, given he holds a 164-vote edge out of more than 2.2 million cast. The slimmest of margins, but 163 more than necessary. Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain won’t talk about a recount just yet. Also understandable. He is waiting for the State Board of Elections to certify the vote. But once the statewide canvass is complete and the results official, a recount is a virtual certainty. The task then will be to carry it out smoothly, with a minimum of controversy. Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli could help greatly with this by refraining from emailing supporters of his own failed gubernatorial race, asking for donations to defray Obenshain’s potential recount expenses, as The Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported.