Transparency News, 11/25/20


 November 25, 2020
VCOG's Access News will return Monday, Nov. 30. Happy Thanksgiving, all!

state & local news stories
The FOIA Council will meet Wednesday, Dec. 2, at 2 p.m. The agenda hasn't been posted yet, but you can check this page in the coming days to find it and any supporting materials. You can watch and sign up to comment.

Here's what will probably be on the agenda:

A recommendation to extend protection for citizen contact information when they sign up for one-way communication from elected officials. An exemption exists already for news and alerts sent by government departments (e.g., a parks and recreation department newsletter), this just makes clear that the exemption extends to public officials when they send out district and government news, too.

There's also a recommendation, though, to extend the exemption for contact information throughout FOIA, so that any time someone contacts government -- to fix a pothole, to pitch a development deal, to apply for a building permit -- their contact information could be redacted. We oppose this. Imagine shielding a developer who uses only his or her email address (no name attached) to lobby a planning commission member. Email addresses can be used as identifiers when names aren't used and have value in showing who is asking government to intervene for them on some level.

Also on the table is a bill on expanding the reasons why and when a member of a public body can call into a meeting (during normal, non-pandemic times). We're OK with some expansion here but we are opposed to efforts to eliminate any limits on how many times someone can call in instead of showing up in person. It's being miscast as an equity issue, despite there being no evidence that the reason people choose not to seek public office is because they can't call in to meetings from home.

There's also a bill codifying rules for virtual meetings during an extended emergency that VCOG supports, as does the Virginia Press Association, Virginia Municipal League, Virginia Association of Counties and attorneys for local and regional public bodies. The draft keeps in place current rules for temporary emergencies and VCOG opposes suggestions that would like to change them.

Finally, VCOG supports the recommendations coming out of the subcommittee that is drafting legislation to provide some measure of access to inactive criminal investigative files.
stories from around the country
Three years ago, the voters of Charlotte, N.C., did something that startled much of the country and many of the city's voters themselves. They elected what was widely described as the first majority-millennial city council of any major American city. The new members themselves generally shied away from that description, but there was no way to deny the significance of what had happened. The average age of the 11-member council had been reduced from 61 to 45, and most of the new members were in their 20s and 30s. If they didn't like to call themselves millennials, they didn't disguise their contempt for the city's old guard. One of them joked that the best way to think about the new group was as "agents of destruction." They launched a podcast, one of whose musical themes came from the band Rage Against the Machine. These "Young Turks" also had a wide range of generalized goals. They wanted more public transit, more affordable housing, dramatic action on climate change and, perhaps most visibly, a transparent government that would not only produce podcasts but would stream its meetings live on Facebook.  In the years since then, most of the country has largely forgotten about the Charlotte insurgency. But one well-informed and diligent local reporter, Charlotte Agenda's Michael Graff, has followed the phenomenon step by step. He tells a compelling story, some of it surprising, but much of it, when you stop to think, not so surprising at all.

Attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are currently fighting in court to help Pennsylvania journalists gain access to records that should be released under the state’s Right to Know Law. If they’re successful, reporters from local news organizations will be able to access records that reveal a forensic audit of a local fire company, the salaries of county court employees, aggregated data about pneumonia and influenza deaths, and pandemic preparedness plans for a county jail. Beyond helping these journalists access public records, such litigation could go a long way toward helping improve Pennsylvania’s relatively new public records law. With the state’s Right to Know Law less than 12 years old — quite young compared to other states’ public records laws — there is substantial opportunity to create favorable case law for transparency, as well as to address problems in the law, something that the Reporters Committee hopes to achieve through its Local Legal Initiative, led in Pennsylvania by attorney Paula Knudsen Burke.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press



editorials & columns
Virginia officials who want to deter the release of information to the public have a lot of arrows in their quiver to do so. They can delay, but only for so long. They can charge fees, but only so high. They can use exemptions in state law — there are about 180 in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act — to avoid disclosure. Or they can heavily redact the information, effectively rendering it all but unusable. It’s a tactic that attempts to demonstrate transparency without ever being transparent — call it “Transparency Theater” — and it’s all too commonplace with public records requests. The Virginia Mercury’s Graham Moomaw indicates those redactions came at the suggestion of the governor’s office.  There are two problems here. First is interference with a warranted review of the parole board, which deserved closer scrutiny. The parole board pushed back against the report’s findings, and lawmakers have proposed legislation that would change its operations. Those should be the subject of robust public debate, and the full report is a critical component of that discussion. Second is independence of an office that serves a vital role in the commonwealth. The OSIG is a gubernatorial appointee and the office is in the executive branch, which was considered a potential problem at its creation in 2012. Those fears now seem prescient.
The Virginian-Pilot

When the University of Virginia hired Jim Ryan as president in 2018, the terms of his employment were spelled out in a contract. Anyone can obtain a copy of the document under the Freedom of Information Act, as Bacon’s Rebellion has done. Among other things, the six-year contract calls for paying Ryan a base salary of $750,000, provide him a $20,000-a-year car allowance, cover membership fees for two clubs, give him free housing (including the cost of housekeeping and utilities), grant him 22 vacation days a year, allow him to accrue Sabbatical leave at the rate of two months per year, and award him a performance bonus of up to $100,000 a year. While the details of a university president’s compensation are interesting, the most important clause from a governance perspective covers the performance bonus. The contract says this about the bonus:
 An evaluation of the President’s performance shall be conducted annually by the Rector after consulting with the Board of Visitors. The evaluation shall be based on the achievement of mutually agreed upon performance objectives determined by the Board of Visitors and Mr. Ryan. For the purpose of evaluating the direction UVa is heading, the document spelling out the president’s marching orders is every bit as important as the university’s budget and strategic plan. But the University of Virginia declines to make that document available.
Bacon's Rebellion

There was, and only ever will be, one dean of the Capitol press corps: Tyler Whitley. Virginia journalism lost one of its giants on Nov. 18 with the death of Mr. Whitley at age 83. Mr. Whitley’s remarkable career with Richmond newspapers — first with The Richmond News Leader, then the Richmond Times-Dispatch after they merged — spanned more than a half-century, from 1960 to 2011. He covered Virginia politics for much of that tenure, chronicling 11 governors, dozens of sessions of the General Assembly and many national presidential nominating conventions. He also accompanied state trade delegations around the world, including storied trips to Jamaica, Spain, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr. Whitley was highly regarded across the political spectrum for his fairness. He was a reporter of the old school, never a “gotcha” journalist but one who valued objectivity. That’s why sources always returned his calls. They knew they would be treated fairly.
Richmond Times-Dispatch