Transparency News 11/4/19



November 4, 2019


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state & local news stories


"The district also withheld photographs . . . but didn’t give a reason, as the law requires, for why they didn’t provide the photos."

Sherwood Forest Elementary’s principal was at home sick. For weeks Cheryl Jordan had been asking for help at the Norfolk school, which she thought was making her and others sick. Frustrated by the response, she reached out to her bosses, again. There “seems to be no sense of urgency,” Jordan wrote to an acting deputy superintendent, John Hazelette. Exterminators told her they’d found years worth of mold, rat feces and urine in the ceiling. Rats had been seen throughout the building and had chewed through office files and phone cords. The Norfolk school district didn’t tell parents there were any problems at all until more than a week later, when they got a message Oct. 7 that the school had experienced “some pest control issues recently.” Jordan’s emails to her bosses, obtained by The Virginian-Pilot through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, back that up. The district provided 33 pages of Jordan’s emails to two of her bosses between Sept. 1 and Oct. 14. Some about students were withheld entirely. The district also withheld photographs Jordan sent that she said showed “what’s happening at Sherwood.” The district didn’t give a reason, as the law requires, for why they didn’t provide the photos. The district’s redactions were inconsistent. The same sentence about Jordan’s medical leave, which appears twice in the records, was redacted from one email but not the other. In most instances, the district blacked out the text of emails Jordan was responding to, even though that text is a part of Jordan’s reply emails. But in other instances, the district included such text. It’s not clear why the district redacted in some of those instances but not others. A Norfolk Public Schools spokeswoman said some passages were redacted because they were “non-responsive” to The Pilot’s request for emails Jordan sent, not because the words fell under any other category of information that state law gives them the discretion to withhold.
The Virginian-Pilot

In July, a group of Richmond officials told elected leaders that the cost of building three new schools was increasing again. But there was also some good news: Richmond’s construction costs per square foot were still slightly below those of neighboring Chesterfield County. While Chesterfield is building three elementary schools for about $75 million, Richmond is spending $71 million on just two elementary schools. An analysis from the Virginia Contractor Procurement Alliance found that the city is paying significantly more per square foot for schools than neighboring Chesterfield. However, Richmond’s construction costs to build its three new schools are significantly higher than Chesterfield’s. And to reach its comparison, Richmond added millions of dollars onto Chesterfield’s construction costs. Jack Dyer, president of the alliance and owner of Gulf Seaboard, a general contractor in Ashland, said the group of small to midsized contractors used the Freedom of Information Act to analyze comparable elementary and middle school construction costs in Chesterfield and Suffolk to the schools Richmond is building through a method of procurement called “construction manager at risk.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Attorneys for CBS have asked a federal court to throw out the $400 million defamation lawsuit Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax filed against the television network, saying Fairfax has used the filing to “disparage” and “attack” the two women who accused him of sexual assault. Fairfax sued CBS in mid-September, claiming the network defamed him by failing to fully vet the allegations before airing emotional interviews with accusers Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson. In the complaint, Fairfax’s attorneys said he filed the suit to defend his reputation and “stop the weaponization of false allegations of sexual assault.” In a response filed Friday, CBS called Fairfax’s lawsuit baseless and asked the court to dismiss it, arguing the network was reporting on serious allegations against an elected official that had already been widely publicized. The network notes that even though Fairfax declined to be interviewed himself, the segments in question included Fairfax’s denials and information about polygraph tests that Fairfax says support his claims of innocence.
Virginia Mercury

Shenandoah County taxpayers might have to pay for Mayor Richard Orndorff Jr.’s attorney fees after a judge granted a motion to stop the petition case to have him removed from office on Friday. Amanda Wiseley, the commonwealth’s attorney for Shenandoah County, submitted the motion to non-suit, or stop the petition, on Friday, bringing the potential removal of Orndorff from office to a halt. Phil Griffin II, Orndorff’s attorney, supported Wiseley’s motion, noting several missteps along the way of the petitioners that warranted the case being dismissed.
The Northern Virginia Daily

You don’t often see Leesburg Town Council members doing “Baby Shark.”  But Friday afternoon, council celebrated the Washington Nationals World Series win by renaming the town Natsburg for the weekend and celebrating their vote with some Baby Shark-style applause.
The Loudoun Times-Mirror

Voters in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia will elect either a whole slew of state lawmakers or a governor and other statewide executives. Or, in the case of Louisiana and Mississippi, all of the above. But why do just five of the 50 states have elections in years when there is no presidential or congressional election, and what does it mean for state political power and voter turnout? We wanted to know, so some of our political reporters in those places waded into archives, combed state constitutions and spoke to political scientists to figure out why their state has bucked the trend and holds elections in odd-numbered years.


stories of national interest

Heavily redacted cell phone and text records from the Denver City Attorneys Office Denver International Airport leak investigation were released this week although the pages are so completely blacked out, virtually no information can be discerned. The two pages of personal cell phone records from Sprint were provided to CBS4 on Wednesday as a response to a Colorado Open Records Act Request. But every line and every column was blacked out save for one line, which indicated a single incoming call. The City Attorneys Office said the phone records were “redacted to remove employees’ personal cell phone numbers to protect their privacy interests and all information related to calls or text messages that were personal in nature.”



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editorials & columns

quote_3.jpg"Why not release it in the interest of transparency and to provide the family with some closure?"

It’s past time for law enforcement officials to release body-cam and dash-cam video of the officer-involved shooting of Phillip Cameron Gibson in May 2018 following a pursuit in Washington County, Virginia. Here’s the deal: The footage has been sought through Freedom of Information Act requests by Gibson’s family and the Bristol Herald Courier. But the requests were turned down by both the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia State Police, and, initially, each said it should come from the other. Sheriff Fred Newman refused to release the video because the State Police investigated. State Police refused, saying it is the property of the Sheriff’s Office. Most recently, Newman said he has the discretion to release or not release the video footage under the FOIA. As BHC Managing Editor Rob Walters put it, that is a “catch-all loophole” used by many police agencies to avoid releasing material that should be public, and it needs to be closed. The family is now asking a judge to intervene and require turnover of the video, but there’s been no decision. The sheriff recently issued a statement saying the family did view a video, but the family says the shooting itself was not shown. Why not release it in the interest of transparency and to provide the family with some closure?
Bristol Herald Courier