Transparency News, 11/18/21


November 18, 2021
follow us on TwitterFacebook & Instagram

state & local news stories
A Virginia judge has rejected Fairfax County Public School's (FCPS) attempt to block two moms from disseminating the results of public information requests, which the county says contains "sensitive and legally protected information." "We are surprised and concerned by yesterday’s ruling. We are reviewing it and evaluating our next steps," the an FCPS spokesperson said. "Today’s ruling is not a final decision, and it allows the case to go forward. We do not support the deliberate and intentional sharing of sensitive student or employee information," the spokesperson continued. "FCPS will continue its commitment to protect sensitive information."
Fox News

The appointees of Gov. Ralph Northam who regulate Virginia jails voted Wednesday to allow the Hampton Roads Regional Jail to remain open even after a committee found in April that the facility showed disregard for minimum standards, knowingly withheld information from the state and “represents a significant public safety threat to inmates and correctional officers.” The Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails voted to approve the agreement after opting to meet in closed session with the jail’s staff and attorney. Nothing required the state board to hold the discussion in private; board chairman Vernie Francis Jr. defended the decision, saying “we always have to be concerned about potential litigation, and I think we have to err on the side of caution.” The board is represented legally by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. The agreement was not available because the board made amendments Wednesday and it hadn’t been signed, Francis said, but it would be made public in the next few days.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Virginia has put in place a statewide system of access to court records. But it is blacked out to the public and the press. The online records room is controlled by the chief court administrator in Virginia. The courts that keep their records in that room span the state from north to south, east to west, and cover an area of 33,000 square miles where six million people live. But the public and press are not allowed into that room. It is reserved for “officers of the court.” So lawyers and court officials can peruse the court records from their office computer, from their phone, from wherever they might be. But a reporter must travel to each courthouse and go into the clerk’s office to see only the records of that one court. “Providing a system of remote access to court records to just one segment of the public not only results in a discriminatory system of access, but it is contrary to basic principles of government transparency protected by the First Amendment,” said a memorandum filed by Courthouse News lawyers in U.S. District Court. The memo filed on Tuesday is part of an ongoing First Amendment case brought by this news service against Virginia’s executive secretary who is the top court administrator. The secretary, Karl Hade, has asked U.S. Judge Henry Hudson to dismiss the case on the grounds that the secretary is immune, in essence untouchable.
Courthouse News Service

Members of Chesapeake City Council are facing criticism over how the body went about appointing a council member to a vacant seat, with the mayor alleging the process was "sabotaged." On Tuesday night, council members voted 5-3 to appoint former Councilman Dwight Parker to temporarily fill the unexpired term of Councilman Matt Hamel. On Monday, the Virginia State Board of Elections certified Hamel's election to be the next commonwealth's attorney for the city. That means Hamel would have had to resign his seat on City Council by Dec. 31. However, Hamel resigned three days before his win was officially confirmed. Mayor Rick West said he believes it was all part of a scheme to push through a chosen candidate “behind closed doors.” An email chain was obtained by 10 On Your Side after filing a Freedom of Information Act Request. At 9:43 p.m., Councilman Stephen Best sent an email addressed to the city clerk, asking that an item to appoint his replacement be placed on the agenda for Nov. 16 and that the previous plan to accept applications from the general public be scrapped. Within the next hour, council members Robert Ike, Don Carey and Hamel himself all responded agreeing with Best's request.

The first public meeting in a series dubbed by city officials as “conversations about reversion” was both contentious and confusing Tuesday night in council chambers. Martinsville City Council recently voted to hold the meetings in order to answer questions and clear up any “misconceptions and misinformation about the reversion process floating around our community,” as the city’s website states. “Martinsville City Council wishes to engage our citizens in a conversation about the process, to answer questions, and to clear up the false information,” the posting reads. The meetings are limited to 12 citizens who must register with the city in order to attend, but on Tuesday only one person asked to participate: Martinsville Commissioner of Revenue Ruth Easley. “The information provided is inaccurate, and I can’t even find it on the city’s website,” Easley said. “There are myths to your myth document.”
Martinsville Bulletin

A Wednesday evening public hearing before the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on a proposal for 328 apartments at the intersection of the John W. Warner Parkway and Rio Road now needs to be rescheduled due to a public notice error. According to the county, the sign notice posted at the property referred people to Albemarle’s zoning notices search webpage, where an outdated notice was posted for the proposal. Albemarle Spokesperson Emily Kilroy said someone notified the county shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday about the outdated information, which led county staff to request a deferral of the public hearing to a later date. “We felt like on the fly, without time to do a full proper analysis, it was better to defer and make sure that everyone felt really strong about being in compliance with the requirements for advertisingthen to go forward and have [the public hearing] not count or have that question hanging,” she said.
The Daily Progress

The First Amendment Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law has sued the Department of Justice again, asking for non-prosecution agreements that haven’t been delivered under federal Freedom of Information Act requests. And this time, the clinic is also seeking a list of every such deal federal prosecutors have struck with businesses. The clinic thinks there could be, at the very least, dozens of the agreements, some of which they know about because of press releases from prosecutors’ offices or other public sources, but they don’t know exactly how many. There potentially could be hundreds. Government documents that are mentioned but not verifiable are often a red flag, clinic members said. “Any time that happens it piques a First Amendment Clinic’s interest,” said Sarah Guinee, a second-year law student taking the clinic this year.
University of Virginia School of Law
editorials & opinion
"The policy statement is a microcosm of democracy and a balance of interests that ultimately tilts towards the citizens."
In FOIA Land, we like to talk about the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. There are the words on the page, but just like a script in the hands of different directors, FOIA in the hands of people with different experience and experiences, different resources, different competing job duties and so on, will apply those words in countless different ways. I think I’ve seen at least eleventy-hundred of those different ways. The goal, always the goal, is to interpret those words on the page within the spirit of the law, another way of saying within the policy of the law. Virginia’s FOIA (and a bunch of other public records and meetings laws across the country) are prefaced by a policy. It’s a remarkable statement, lofty and even grand. The policy statement is a microcosm of democracy and a balance of interests that ultimately tilts towards the citizens.
Megan Rhyne, VCOG's Substack Newsletter