Transparency News, 1/13/2023


January 13, 2023

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state & local news stories


VCOG's annual legislative chart of FOIA and access-related bills

Prince William County officials are considering new limits on public comment procedures at Board of Supervisors meetings. During Tuesday’s meeting, board Chair Ann Wheeler outlined the initial framework she is proposing to revise public comment rules in response to meetings regularly running well past midnight. Public comment was more limited in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic but gradually became more robust throughout 2021. In 2022, public comment increased substantially, primarily driven by those supporting or opposing the controversial PW Digital Gateway data center project. State law does not require local governments to hold public comment sessions, although legislators have periodically tried unsuccessfully to change the law. Wheeler’s proposal is to limit public comment in the afternoon and evening to one hour each and limit speakers to one public comment slot per month. For public hearings, Wheeler recommended that once 45 people have signed up, the speaking limits are automatically reduced to two minutes per person and three minutes for organizations.
Inside NoVa

The King William County Public Schools division has denied a Freedom of Information request from the Tidewater Review to obtain a consultant’s report on school board members compiled before the board terminated the superintendent last month. The school board voted 3-2 on Dec. 13 to remove Superintendent David White. School board members have declined to discuss the issue, referring to it as a personnel matter. In an email on Jan. 3, the division’s acting superintendent, Stacy Johnson, responded to a request from the Tidewater Review for a report prepared by consultants into the actions of some members of the school board. Johnson said the “school division has determined not to disclose the requested document” based on exemptions in the Code of Virginia. Megan Rhyne, executive director of Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the King William school division’s response to the FOIA request raises questions. “It is a disappointing practice of so many public bodies when they make hiring and firing decisions without any explanation to the public, even though the public is impacted by those decisions,” Rhyne said in an email. “There are some states that specifically require the release of records related to the performance of certain key positions, like school superintendents or local government administrators, which is a much more transparent practice.”
Tidewater Review

Former Portsmouth City Manager Tonya Chapman is calling for her full $400,000 severance payment, stating in a letter to City Council members that reasons cited for her termination are “false” and “misleading.” Chapman was fired last week during the City Council’s first meeting of the year by a new council supermajority that believed her termination was for sufficient cause. Councilman Bill Moody cited a clause in her contract and said her termination was for “willfully engaging in conduct” that has damaged the city financially or otherwise. In a series of emails — sent to City Council members Tuesday evening as they met for a closed session — Chapman said Mayor Shannon Glover “falsified and/or embellished information” to solicit the council’s vote last week for her termination. In Chapman’s emails to City Council, she included an audio recording allegedly from a Nov. 23 phone conversation with Glover, with City Attorney Lavonda-Graham Williams confirming she was also on the call when Glover asked. In the audio, Chapman tells Glover that Portsmouth police were investigating concerns raised about the gift cards and that both Virginia State Police and the FBI had “taken a report” on the gift cards since they were paid for with federal grant money. An FBI spokesperson told the Pilot the agency cannot acknowledge whether the matter is being investigated. A Virginia State Police spokesperson said the agency has been in contact with Chapman but couldn’t comment further.
The Virginian-Pilot

Virginia State Police officers are using software that allows them to track cellphone location data without a warrant, raising alarm among privacy advocates. Fog Reveal allows police to see cellphone location data that was initially collected by smartphone apps. Officers can sweep an area to see which phones were in a particular location at a given time. They can then use that information to see a 90-day “pattern of activity” that shows where a device traveled, according to a user manual published by Vice News. The software uses data collected by apps that’s sold to digital data brokers. From there, the data can end up in the hands of a range of clients, including advertisers, the military, health insurance companies and law enforcement. VSP and Loudoun County-based Fog Data Science maintain that the data is anonymous and isn’t tied to specific people. But Adam Schwartz, a senior attorney at the digital privacy nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it’s “child’s play” for police to figure out the identity of any given cellphone user based on their unique “pattern of life,” including the places they live, sleep and work.

stories of national interest

"This appointment underscores for the public the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters."

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Thursday that he was appointing a special counsel, former U.S. attorney Robert Hur, to review the storage of sensitive documents discovered in spaces used by President Joe Biden during the years preceding his return to the White House. “The extraordinary circumstances here require the appointment of a special counsel for this matter,” Garland said during a news conference at the Justice Department. “This appointment underscores for the public the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters, and to making decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law.” Garland’s decision underscores the gravity of the discoveries, which included one set of documents found at an office space Biden used and another set found in the garage of his home in Wilmington, Del. The Justice Department had already appointed special counsel Jack Smith to look into former President Donald Trump’s handling and storage of classified material at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, as well as other matters.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana has been unlawfully destroying its deputies’ disciplinary records for at least 10 years, according to records provided by state officials responsible for overseeing the retention of records by state, parish and local agencies. The finding comes at a time when the sheriff’s office is facing multiple lawsuits involving allegations of excessive force, racial discrimination and wrongful death at the hands of Jefferson Parish deputies. Attorneys have accused Sheriff Joe Lopinto of failing to discipline deputies and a lack of transparency when it comes to releasing records that might shed light on their history of complaints and disciplinary action. The illegal destruction of disciplinary records can make it harder to hold deputies accountable in a court of law or track problem officers moving from department to department, said Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.