Transparency News, 11/22/21


November 22, 2021
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state & local news stories
The pandemic changed many aspects of modern life. And, it may also end up changing how local government works. Now that the public health emergency declaration has expired, all those old rules prohibiting virtual participation in local government meetings – well, they’re back in place. But maybe not for all that long. Delegate-elect Elizabeth Bennett-Parker is a Democrat from Alexandria who has been pressing for more virtual participation in local government ever since, well, before the pandemic began. Advocates for open government are worried about the potential downsides of virtual government. Megan Rhyne at the Coalition for Open Government says there's no substitute for in-person meetings.

A Lovettsville resident has filed a complaint in Loudoun County General District Court against the town, alleging town officials violated the law by failing to fulfill a public records request. The complaint, filed Nov. 17 on behalf of Caitlin Keefe, names Mayor Nathaniel Fontaine, Town Clerk Candi Choi and former interim town manager Samuel Finz, saying the town failed to produce records sought in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by Keefe. The FOIA request was submitted to Choi and Finz on August 30, 2021. It requested a copy of a Facebook post made by Town Councilwoman Renee Edmonston, which included a survey and comments that were made in a closed Facebook group, according to the complaint. Choi, the town clerk, responded on August 31, asking for a deposit of $115 for the FOIA. However, according to Virginia’s FOIA law, a deposit is not required when such an estimate is under $200, the complaint states. After Keefe responded and confirmed the request for a deposit, she told the town that she would be forwarding the email exchange to the Virginia FOIA Advisory Council, an organization which works to ensure compliance of FOIA. According to the complaint, Choi responded by email, “Due to your threat to take this up with the FOIA Board, the Town will no longer address your emails regarding FOIA requests.”
Loudoun Times-Mirror

A former Roanoke Valley judge has been called to a hearing before the state bar amid allegations that he paid a past client to keep quiet about a sexual relationship. John Weber III, who’s now in private practice, had operated a local law office since 1993 when he was appointed to a seat as a 23rd District Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge in 2015. The district’s jurisdiction includes Roanoke city and county and the city of Salem. In January, about five months before the end of his first term, he quietly submitted his resignation from the bench, according to past newspaper coverage. No explanation for the departure was given. The General Assembly appointed a new judge to succeed him in February. Weber, of Troutville, said in filings submitted for his bar hearing that he never had an intimate relationship with the client. He’s accused of sleeping with a woman while representing her, before his judicial appointment, and later giving a little more than $22,000 to her or others for her after he was elevated to the bench, according to state bar documents first reported by Virginia Lawyers Weekly.
The Roanoke Times

On November 9th, Logan Plaster resigned via a letter to the council, in that letter he recommended Laura Mollo, the runner-up in the Richlands Town Council elections take his place. During the council’s next meeting, it was suggested that there be a special election between Mollo and a candidate who came in 4th from 2020. However, later in the meeting, Mollo said, the council got cold feet and appointed someone else. Later in the meeting, one of our council members got very agitated. At that point, YouTube went out for quite a period of time. So, people couldn’t see at home, citizens couldn’t see what transpired at that time. He went on and on about how uncomfortable he was with this, that he didn’t want me or the 4th place person.

The presiding judge in Shenandoah County Circuit Court will not hear the petition challenging the decision by the State Board for Community Colleges to rename five colleges, including Lord Fairfax Community College. Judge Kevin Black said he had represented and considered himself a friend of William Holtzman, who is one of the four appellants of the petition. Holtzman is the founder of Holtzman Oil Corp. The other three appellants were unsuccessful candidates for the county’s Board of Supervisors during the recent elections. The announcement came during a hearing Thursday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court in which a date was to be scheduled to hear arguments on the legal standing of the case. Woodstock-based attorney Brad Pollack’s petition, on behalf of the appellants, states that the name change process didn’t follow public-input requirements. The State Board for Community Colleges responded by saying it is immune to the lawsuit. The petition is missing information and actually references a recommendation, not a regulation.
The Winchester Star

Back Creek Supervisor Shawn Graber has threatened to press charges against a Frederick County Sheriff's Office deputy over an Election Day incident at the Senseny Road School polling location. On Nov. 3, the day after the election, Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland returned a phone message to Graber, placed through the dispatch center, regarding Graber's concerns about how Deputy Sean. M. Kennedy handled the call for service at the polling location. The Star obtained a copy of the conversation between Millholland and Graber through a Freedom of Information Act request. Graber told Millholland he was "thoroughly frustrated" and maintained that Kennedy violated federal and state laws. He said he wanted to talk with Millholland before pursuing charges and making the Sheriff's Office "look bad." Graber told Millholland that he wants deputies to be better trained on handling election situations. He said other supervisors have similar concerns and suggested having a meeting with Millholland behind closed doors so the matter doesn't get "blown up."
The Winchester Star

Former Councilman Dwight Parker was appointed Tuesday to fill the Chesapeake City Council seat vacated by Matthew Hamel, who was recently elected Commonwealth’s Attorney. But Mayor Rick West said the procedure to appoint Parker was not right — in fact, he’s been trying to figure out if it was illegal, and plans to call a special meeting to discuss the matter. However, West voted in support of appointing Parker several years ago when the same process was used — and voiced no objection then. “I don’t want to say right now because I don’t know for sure ... but we need to take the appropriate action,” West said Thursday. “It could be calling a special meeting to redo (the appointment). It could be just letting it go. We just need to make sure that we’re right.”
The Virginian-Pilot
stories from around the country
"As in 55 years beyond."
Freedom of Information Act requests are rarely speedy, but when a group of scientists asked the federal government to share the data it relied upon in licensing Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, the response went beyond typical bureaucratic foot-dragging. As in 55 years beyond. That’s how long the Food & Drug Administration in court papers this week proposes it should be given to review and release the trove of vaccine-related documents responsive to the request. If a federal judge in Texas agrees, plaintiffs Public Health and Medical Professionals for Transparency can expect to see the full record in 2076.
editorials & opinion
"The public will ultimately learn of the decision, even though that will be too late for residents to have any say in the chosen policy."
Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act was created to prevent elected officials from gathering together out of the public eye and making policy without citizen input. Last month, four members of Alexandria’s City Council secretly developed a blueprint for a new policy regarding police officers, commonly called SROs, in Alexandria City Public Schools and presented their plan as a fait accompli at the Oct. 12 council meeting. The four were Councilors Canek Aguirre, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, John Chapman and Mo Seifeldein. Alexandria City Attorney Joanna Anderson and two open government experts that the Times consulted agreed that the action by our local council members did not breach the letter of Virginia FOIA law because the four didn’t meet in person or exchange emails within a timeframe that courts have ruled constitutes a “meeting.”  But there is no doubt that the four violated the spirit of the Sunshine Law, which is to prevent policymaking without public input. Aguirre apparently fails to see the irony, or problem, when a majority of council decides an important policy issue without public input, then presents it as a done deal. Because, hey, the public will ultimately learn of the decision, even though that will be too late for residents to have any say in the chosen policy.
Alexandria Times

The parents of a high school student in Spotsylvania County appeared before the school board this month to complain about two books available to students from school libraries that they considered objectionable. Schools have become a flashpoint in the country’s cultural and political wars, and so the knee-jerk response from the school board — ordering the removal of “sexually explicit” books from school libraries — was not a surprise. What followed, though, was a heartening example of a community showing more common sense than its elected school board members and unafraid to speak its mind. There is a long history in this country of efforts to ban books, but many librarians see the current campaign as unprecedented in scope. Hopefully, Spotsylvania’s experience will prompt some would-be book burners to think more deeply.
The Washington Post