Transparency News, 11/19/21


November 19, 2021
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state & local news stories

The Alexandria Times received FOIAed documents earlier this month consisting of text and email exchanges between four City Council members who were apparently developing policy outside of scheduled public meetings. Sent by an anonymous resident, the documents show communication between Councilors Canek Aguirre, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, John Chapman and Mo Seifeldein about rules surrounding school resource officers – a contentious topic that has yielded both intense support and opposition among community members during the past year. The four engage mostly in one-on-one conversations in the FOIAed documents, though all four were included in one email that had an attached video link of a potential model program. The FOIA request was filed after the four councilors arrived at a City Council meeting armed with a joint statement for a plan that outlined their intentions on SROs moving forward. Some residents viewed this statement as suspicious and indicative of behind-the-scenes communication, calling into question whether these actions violated Virginia’s open meetings laws that aim to ensure government transparency through open public meetings. According to various experts’ assessments, the councilors did not technically break the law in this case, as some have claimed. However, the case opens the door to a broader conversation about the letter of the law, the spirit of the law and the gray area in between.
Alexandria Times

Buckingham County’s newly-passed medical freedom resolution recently came into question following the shutdown of a county School Board meeting where citizens exclaimed they’d have to be dragged out for not complying with a facemask policy.  In September, the Buckingham Board of Supervisors (BOS), per the request of the Powhatan Board of Supervisors, adopted a medical freedom resolution surrounding the mandating of medical treatment, specifically vaccination and masking, in the county.  At the time of its adoption, the exact purpose of the resolution and any consequences of the motion were uncertain. During a Nov. 10 Buckingham School Board meeting, School Board Chair and District 7 Member Theresa Bryant notified unmasked members of the audience that they would need to don a facemask or remove themselves from the meeting. A woman in the audience proceeded to say she did not need to wear a mask per the new resolution.  “The BOS on Sept. 12 at the meeting passed a medical freedom resolution for the County of Buckingham that states we do not have to wear masks and we do not have to follow the shot mandate,” the woman stated. “This is Buckingham County Public Schools, and we are mandated by the governor of Virginia,” Bryant replied. 
The Farmville Herald

“Please bear with me because I’m going to have lots of questions.” With that statement, Leabern Kennedy began her first session as a Pound Town Council member as the group saw its town attorney quit, two council members storm out and a letter from town businesses threatening to withhold tax payments. Town Council members Glenn Cantrell and Danny Stanley started contesting actions by Kennedy, member Clifton Cauthorne and tiebreaking Mayor Stacey Carson at Tuesday’s meeting by voting not to accept bids for old police vehicles, although they voted to put the vehicles up for sale in July. Cantrell opposed accepting the $4,700 in bids on four vehicles, citing a court injunction against him and Stanley over their September attempt to meet and do business without a proper quorum. They two voted to appoint former council member James Pelfrey as an interim member and to sell other town vehicles after the July auction sale.
Times News

Front Royal officials did not give the mayor’s construction company priority over other projects in approving the firm’s housing development, a town attorney’s report states. But mistakes were made, Town Manager Steven Hicks states in a media release issued Wednesday along with Town Attorney Douglas Napier’s report several hours before the commission's meeting. Town staff did not follow procedures for processing applications submitted by developers for special exceptions, Napier explains in the report. The document doesn't identify any staff members by name or position.
The Northern Virginia Daily

Winchester officials are evaluating Winchester’s government committees to determine their effectiveness and ensure the membership of each includes representatives from all four of the city’s wards. The process began in September when City Manager Dan Hoffman told City Council’s Boards and Commissions Committee that some council-appointed bodies “are not representative geographically of the city.” To address the membership discrepancies, Hoffman and City Council members Judy McKiernan and Evan Clark are reviewing the existing membership of nearly three dozen council-appointed committees, commissions and authorities to ensure that each is geographically balanced. As part of the effort to ensure all four wards are equally represented in city government, Hoffman and City Council are also reviewing the effectiveness of the nearly two dozen council-appointed committees, commissions and boards. 
The Winchester Star

A Loudoun County parent group has filed a recall petition in court against school board vice chair Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District), after gathering roughly 1,900 signatures on a petition for her removal. It’s the third such effort from Fight for Schools, which already filed recall petitions against board member Beth Barts (Leesburg), who later resigned, and board chair Brenda Sheridan (Sterling), who is fighting the recall effort. The group is also targeting board members Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) and Denise Corbo (At Large), alleging violations of Virginia open meetings laws. But it hasn’t yet filed petitions against the pair. The complaint against Reaser, filed in Loudoun County Circuit Court on Thursday, broadly accuses her of neglect of duty, incompetence and misuse of office. The filing alleges that Reaser acted inappropriately by joining and participating in closed Facebook groups in which parents, and some other school board members, at times discussed issues including school closures and reopenings. The filing also accuses Reaser of violating the First Amendment rights of Loudoun residents and parents by prematurely ending public comment sessions and placing limits on who can speak at board meetings. 
The Washington Post

For the first time, Richmond’s governing body is planning to seek authority from the General Assembly to hike the pay of members so they could become full time. The proposal is included in a package of changes to the City Charter, or constitution, that the council is poised to send to the legislature for approval in the upcoming session that begins in mid-January. The pay legislation appears to be the most significant. Ninth District Councilman Michael J. Jones introduced the proposal to give the council the power to set its own pay. Though he is a full-time minister as well, Dr. Jones stated, “It’s not about me. It’s about the job of council.” He and others have noted that members put in 40 or more hours a week in carrying out their council duties and are on call 24 hours a day. Currently, council members are limited to the pay allowed by state law.
Richmond Free Press
stories from around the country
"Such secrecy is highly unusual except in national security or terrorism cases and some think it may be unconstitutional."
More than two years after federal agents took the rare step of raiding the offices of two of Baltimore’s most prominent law firms, the resulting criminal case against two attorneys is shrouded in secrecy. Federal prosecutors and a specially appointed judge have sealed nearly all of the recent filings and motions in the federal racketeering and obstruction of justice case against attorneys Kenneth Ravenell and Joshua Treem, keeping it almost completely out of the public’s view as it moves toward an early December trial. Such secrecy is highly unusual except in national security or terrorism cases, experts say, and some think it may be unconstitutional by blocking the public’s access to the courts.
The Washington Post
editorials & opinion
"And when the going gets tough, the not-so tough get going ... right for the exits."
Virginia should be better — a lot better — when it comes to protecting citizen access to government records and hearings. As the Virginia Freedom of Information Act plainly states, “The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government.” A few recent developments offer hope that the commonwealth is headed in the right direction. Begin in the courts, where the Daily Press and Virginia-Pilot won a couple of important rulings that could help make Virginia’s criminal justice system more accessible to the public. Finally, there was recent movement to strengthen Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, is a former journalist so she knows, better than most lawmakers, how the high costs charged to fulfill public records requests can make government less transparent and accountable.
The Virginian-Pilot

Get those tiny violins out – we’re holding the world’s smallest “pity party” today! On a front page of The Washington Post last week was an above-the-fold story down the left that, at least based on a scan of the headline, seemed to bemoan the fact that school-board members across the fruited plain were leaving the jobs (some appointed, many elected) because of those cranky parents who now show up and complain – you know, like PO’d voters are wont to do when pushed too far. Now, so everyone is clear, nobody should be countenancing violence or threats of violence against elected officials. But as was shown by the National School Boards Association’s quick disavowal of its infamous letter to federal officials (disavowed after it had served its purpose, perhaps, but disavowed nonetheless), there have been precious few such incidents nationally. You could count them on one hand and still have a couple of digits left over. With that caveat out of the way, frankly, it seems like school-board members who have gone “woke” – a phrase that quickly is wearing out its welcome even among those on the left who brought it to life – are not happy that anyone is questioning them. And when the going gets tough, the not-so tough get going ... right for the exits.
Sun Gazette