Transparency News 12/12/13

Thursday, December 12, 2013
State and Local Stories


A Nelson County judge on Wednesday prohibited law enforcement officers and lawyers from speaking about an abduction case involving a missing teenager. The order issued by Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Gamble forbids the release of the existence or contents of any confession or statement by the defendant, Randy Taylor; the results of any scientific or forensic test unless the test is filed unsealed in the court file; property or items seized from Taylor’s property and other information, media outlets reported. Gamble’s order also applies to employees of lawyers involved in the case.

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonsburg, won his point about gaining access to election materials, including the poll books that show who voted, to help prepare for the recount in the race for attorney general that he lost by 165 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast. His attorneys this week argued that they needed time to review the material before a Dec. 23 deadline for contesting the election before General Assembly.
Daily Press

Republican Mark D. Obenshain’s campaign for attorney general raised new questions Wednesday about how Fairfax County ballots were handled while also dismissing the idea that he has already decided to ask the General Assembly to step into the race. The campaign said this week that some used ballots and blank ballots were misplaced in Fairfax after the election and belatedly turned in to the Circuit Court clerk. A Fairfax official confirmed that account but said the ballots, though misplaced, had been securely stored in a locked cart with voting machines. On Wednesday, Hurd said the campaign had received conflicting reports from Fairfax about just when those misplaced ballots were turned into the clerk. One report said some ballots were turned in Nov. 18; another said the ballots were delivered Nov. 20.
Washington Post

Lynchburg’s tourism board gathered for its last meeting Wednesday as the current program enters its final days. The city is launching an internal tourism department Jan. 1, ending a long-term management agreement with the Lynchburg Regional Chamber of Commerce. The decision to take the program in-house follows years of reoccurring tensions between tourism and city officials. Negotiations to renew the management contract this year failed amid disagreements over financial terms and other commitments. City Manager Kimball Payne said it’s his intent to make the transition as smooth as possible, and ensure there is no disruption in service. All current tourism staffers have been offered jobs with the city at their current rate of pay.  The tourism board, a volunteer oversight body, will be reestablished under the new structure. Current members have been invited to reapply, but several said Wednesday they had not had time to make a decision.
News & Advance

Star Scientific, the company whose chief executive is at the center of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s gift scandal, has agreed to pay the state more than $900,000 to settle a dispute over back taxes. The company reached the legal settlement with the state last month, averting a trial that had been scheduled to begin Friday.
Washington Post

For the second time in less than a decade, an effort to start the city of Martinsville down the path of reversion stalled out Tuesday night. A 3-2 vote ended the city council’s trek through its own tracks, where Mark Stroud found no convincing reasons to abandon Martinsville’s current course, despite the economic hardship that has hobbled the region’s economy. The unknowns in Martinsville would have been particularly numerous, as all previous reversions have been completed by cities that already had consolidated their schools into the county they wished to join. Martinsville still operates its own school system.
Register & Bee

Front Royal plans to join Warren County in upgrading building inspections software -- a cost that left some leaders concerned. Town Council voted 4-2 to approve spending up to $50,000 this fiscal year to participate with Warren County in the purchase of planning and building inspections software from EnerGov. Front Royal did not earmark money in the current budget to cover the cost of its share of the software. Money would need to come from the contingencies line in the budget, town officials said.
Northern Virginia Daily

The Arlington County School Board is considering a policy on gifts that would limit the amount parents can spend on teachers to $100 over the course of a school year. The new policy would establish a financial cap for the first time and clarify previous guidance.
Washington Post

National Stories

The Sullivan County, Tenn., Records Commission Wednesday supported moving forward with a filing fee on some licenses to pay for archiving historical records. Currently, archived records are housed in an unheated room in the former Sullivan House building and are not available to the public. Normally, Moody said the commission would ask the County Commission for funding, but he said there is very little support these days for a tax increase. He said a fee is a fair way to raise the money. “This isn’t a big problem, but there have been instances where very expensive gifts have been given to staff members, and it has raised an issue,” board Chairman Abby Raphael said when the revised policy was proposed in September.
Herald Courier

After years of bad news, the environment for state and local government employees began to improve in 2013. Far fewer governments reported layoffs (18 percent compared to 28 percent last year); fewer pay freezes were in effect (33 percent compared to 51 percent); and hiring freezes fell from 42 percent to 27 percent, according to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. These improvements raised employee morale and allowed governments to begin shifting their focus from keeping their heads above water to staff development and workload management. Many governments hope that improvements in those areas will help retain their current employees and make working in the public sector more attractive to future ones.

A New York court's decision to protect a reporter from being forced to reveal her sources in Colorado or face jail underscores the unpredictable patchwork protecting journalists and their sources, First Amendment experts said. Although journalism and Constitutional experts hailed Tuesday's New York Court of Appeals decision to toss an Empire State subpoena ordering Jana Winter to appear in a Colorado court, they said her year-long legal fight still leaves a chill on the field. The strength of so-called shield laws varies from state to state, and reporters cannot always depend on a court to be sympathetic to the Fourth Estate, they said.
Fox News

An estimated 400,000 Ohioans adopted between 1964 and 1996 would have access to their original birth certificates after having been largely blocked by state law from that information absent a court order, under a bill overwhelmingly approved by the House on Wednesday. The measure unanimously passed the Senate earlier this month. With the 88-2 vote in the House, the bill heads to Gov. John Kasich’s desk.
Toledo Blade


Virginian-Pilot: Months after revelations about the mind-boggling scope of the U.S. government's Internet surveillance operations, some of the biggest tech companies in the world have demanded change. Better late than never.

Free Lance-Star: WHETHER ONE agrees with their politics or not, Virginia’s elected officials have enjoyed a longstanding reputation for integrity. As governors and legislators in other states were marched off to prison for a variety of misdeeds, we could say that at least our leaders were honest. If we are to retain that faith, we need more transparency. In the wake of Giftgate, which severely damaged the reputation of Gov. Bob McDonnell in the homestretch of an otherwise unsullied stay in the governor’s mansion, we need to see behind the screen. We need to know where candidates’ and elected officials’ money is coming from and when they got it. Giftgate has left some to wonder if our politicians are that upstanding, or if the bar is just lower here than it is in some places. Virginia’s legislators should be proud of their reputation for honesty. They should be proud enough to raise the bar higher so the rest of us can continue to be proud, too.

News & Advance: Despite the reticence of most of Virginia’s Republican legislators to talk about it and the best efforts of outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell to shoot it down, the possibility of the GOP-dominated General Assembly stepping in to decide the winner of the closely contested attorney general race is not a dead issue. In the Herring/Obenshain race, there have been no credible charges. None whatsoever. Obenshain’s lawyers and party officials have focussed their attention on Fairfax County, where the outcome of the election was decided after days of counting absentee and provisional ballots. Some GOP stalwarts have tried to make the charge that the Fairfax vote counting process is tainted and that local officials disobeyed state directives about determining the eligibility of provisional ballots.

David Hudson, Culpeper Star-Exponent: Two middle-school female students at a Pennsylvania public school had a First Amendment right to wear “I Love Boobies” bracelets, because those bracelets were not plainly lewd, did not substantially disrupt school activities and did not invade the rights of others. Such was the ruling of the majority of the full 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in B.H. v. Easton Area School District (2013), a case closely watched in the student-speech community. The bottom line is that the 3rd Circuit majority most assuredly reached the correct result. These bracelets were not even close to being vulgar or disruptive. But the majority employed some questionable reasoning. This could turn this student-speech triumph into a Pyrrhic victory.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:  Protection of the nation’s food sources and the First Amendment are endangered by a Utah law banning audio and image recording at meat-processing plants, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued in a brief filed in federal court in Salt Lake City, Utah. The “ag-gag” statute, which makes it a criminal offense to record activities at these plants, “weakens food safety guarantees at the same time it stifles free speech,” the Reporters Committee argued in a friend-of-the-court brief joined by 16 news organizations.