Transparency News, 11/24/21


November 24, 2021
VCOG is thankful for the unwavering support of its members and supporters.
A sunny Thanksgiving to you all.
The newsletter will return Nov. 29.

state & local news stories

Former Charlottesville City Manager Tarron Richardson has filed a federal lawsuit against City Council as well as Mayor Nikuyah Walker, councilor Heather Hill, City Attorney Lisa Robertson and former City Attorney and former Interim City Manager John Blair for allegedly violating the First Amendment. Richardson alleges that an “overly broad” disparagement agreement that he entered into with the city violates the First Amendment. A disparagement agreement is an agreement between an employer and employee that neither party will disparage each other. Richardson alleges he was required by the city to enter into the agreement when he resigned from his position in order to receive his severance pay. He also alleges that the defendants, in their capacity as city government employees, violated the First and 14th Amendments by allegedly engaging in viewpoints discrimination, which is the restriction of speech based on its content, and allegedly retaliating against Richardson based on the content of his speech. The suit alleges that the defendants were “unlawfully motivated by their disagreement with Dr. Richardson’s viewpoint concerning racism in the city government.”
The Daily Progress

Warsaw changed the time of its town council meeting from the 7 p.m. to 6 p.m., but not before the switch drew some candid comments from Mayor Randy Phelps about his constituents. Initially, Belinda Reynolds, a resident of Warsaw was the only person to comment on the matter. “You changing your time is making it convenient for y’all to come in here and make your decisions without allowing the town to have opinions. That’s wrong. You already make opinions and decisions now that are not right. So why should we allow you to make time changes? You should do what’s right for the citizens of this town and not what’s convenient for y’all. That’s what the county already does,” she added. “I will tell you the citizenry has been a little bit lazy. They’ve always been lazy. They don’t want to come. They don’t come until there is a specific issue that makes them move to come… But there are many, many, many nights that there is no one in those seats,” Phelps said referring to where the audience was sitting.

The Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office, on Nov. 18, acknowledged the existence of body camera footage and an internal affairs report purported to show ex-Windsor police officer Joe Gutierrez using force against an elderly Black driver — but declined to share those records with The Smithfield Times. The Times submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on Nov. 11 to the Sheriff’s Office for body camera footage, the incident report and the internal affairs report stemming from that traffic stop. “We are in possession of this information you have requested,” Deputy Paul Nash of the agency’s Administrative Services Division wrote to the Times via email. But “the Sheriff’s Office has elected to withhold release of this information,” Nash said, citing Virginia Code 2.2-3706, B.9.ii. According to Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, law enforcement agencies’ use of this particular code section to deny FOIA requests for documents pertaining to alleged misconduct by officers is “pretty typical.” But there is nothing in the law that would require them to withhold those records either. Disclosure is discretionary, Rhyne clarified, “and so they are making a choice not to release it.”
The Smithfield Times
stories from around the country
An Osceola County, Florida, judge ruled Nov. 22, 2021, that the county violated the state’s Sunshine Law by holding Executive Policy Group meetings without public notice or opportunity for the public to attend. County resident Josh Meyers for 613 days challenged the county’s assertion that the Sunshine Law did not apply to the Executive Policy Group. With assistance from the Florida First Amendment Foundation and the NFOIC-administered Knight FOI Litigation Fund, Meyers sued. “The EPG was authorized to enact legally binding executive orders, which were enforceable and had the effect of law,” Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Egan wrote. “This, by its very nature, is a decision-making act. Even though authority was given during a state of emergency, this delegated power did not excuse the EPG from comporting with the requirements outlined in the Sunshine Law.” Receiving a grant from the Knight FOI Litigation Fund was “awesome,” Meyers said, “because we could go after several more depositions than we would have been able to pursue without.”

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission denied a conservative group's request Tuesday for legal memos and recordings related to an Oct. 27 closed-door session, even after the state's attorney general said those items should be public.  The commission cited as the reason for its denial the part of the state's Freedom of Information Act that exempts items subject to attorney-client privilege, according to a copy of the FOIA denial.  Attorney General Dana Nessel issued an opinion Monday that the commission shouldn't have met in closed session Oct. 27 nor should it have kept the documents discussed in that meeting secret. She noted that the Michigan Constitution required the commission to conduct its business in public and to publish data and materials that guided proposed political boundaries for the state House, state Senate and U.S. House.  But Nessel's office also acknowledged that the commission is not a state agency that would usually be bound to follow her opinion. 
The Detroit News