Transparency News, 1/27/2022


January 27, 2022

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state & local news stories


VCOG's annual
bill chart


In addition to the RTD story below about the bills on FOIA fees and FOIA requests by certified mail, here's what else happened at the FOIA subcommittee Tuesday.

All of these bills were struck at the request of the patron:
HB 154 -- would have created a database of all public records from every public body (unworkable and we don't like pre-redaction)
HB 631 -- A closed meeting exemption for witnesses/complainants in police misconduct (discussions would already be covered by personnel exemption)
HB 687 -- Would have changed the definition of public meeting by saying up to a quorum could talk without triggering FOIA's meeting rules (the patron didn't know that a nearly identical bill was reviewed and rejected by the FOIA Council over the summer)
HB 968 -- Would have prohibited release of crime scene photos (written in such a way so as to cover, say, a photo of conditions at a state hospital where a patient died of neglect)

VCOG had a chance to talk with the patrons of all those bills and (we'd like to think) helped influence their decision to withdraw them. Whether we did or not, we are grateful for their decision.

Also, the subcommittee unanimously advanced the bill on electronic meetings that VCOG helped draft, and defeated anotherbill on e-meetings that attempted to treat another category of meetings differently, something the bill we like tried to avoid.

Finally, a bill to protect the ID of complainants about local property nuisances advanced on a slim 4-3-1 vote. VCOG testified against the bill, saying it was creating an anonymous neighborhood scold system.

The full committee meets today after session (probably around 1 or 1:30) to review those bills.
Several bills remain on the committee docket as patrons work details out. They will likely be heard Tuesday the 1st.

The Senate General Laws Committee met yesterday. That committee advanced the an identical version of the electronic meetings bill above, though by a divided vote of 10-5.

The committee also unanimously approved a tweak to FOIA's definitions to assure that "official government website" means more than just a website with a .gov domain name, as a general district judge ruled in 2020.

The committee once again advanced on a 14-1 vote the bill to make Parole Board votes subject to FOIA. This is the third time the Senate has approved this proposal. It died two of those times in the House when it was controlled by Democrats, but with Parole Board reform as one of its planks, I assume it will now pass. The bill does have to go through Senate Finance first, but the fiscal impact statement (FIS) is ridiculous! It anticipates needing two full-time employees for a total of $133,110 to "manually extract each case and prepare a report based on each Board member's vote, comments entered, and the overall decision." They will also need to "compile and prepare such information." (The bill requires no such work.) But that's not all: $108,000 to change the Department of Corrections Information System "in order to extract voting data" So, $241,110 to make their votes subject to FOIA. Um, wow.

A couple of bills remain on the committee docket as patrons work details out. They will likely be heard Wednesday the 2nd.

A lawmaker who proposed that every Freedom of Information Act request in Virginia be done by certified mail asked that his bill be struck on Tuesday. The Virginia Press Association, the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the Virginia Municipal League, an association that represents local governments, had opposed the bill from Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax. Opponents said it would have hindered the ability of citizens to get government records, disrupted government operations across the state and hindered the ability of journalists to do their jobs. The bill was struck in a House General Laws subcommittee that also killed a bill from Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, aimed at limiting the high fees government agencies charge citizens for FOIA requests. But the subcommittee is still considering a bill from Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, that would require government agencies to provide FOIA responses to citizens at the lowest possible cost.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

A bipartisan group of Virginia lawmakers is calling for the ouster of several members of the Virginia Charitable Gaming Board after a watchdog report raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest. Without naming names, the legislators are asking House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, to remove current Board Chairman Chuck Lessin, an appointee of past speakers who played a leading role in the drafting of charitable poker regulations while planning to be involved in the new poker industry himself. The Virginia Mercury reported last year on the dual roles of Lessin, the longtime operator of a charitable bingo hall and sports bar in Richmond. While drafting the regulations, Lessin clashed with state regulators he worked with at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, urging the agency to make poker licenses available as soon as possible. When the General Assembly instructed the agency to freeze the rollout of charitable poker, Lessin opened his poker room without a license from the state. In a statement Wednesday, Lessin denounced the legislators’ call for his removal as an “arbitrary attack” connected to the “corrupting influence” of the for-profit gambling industry’s donations to General Assembly members. The Office of the Inspector General found Lessin did not properly recuse himself from drafting and voting on poker rules that would affect his own business and charitable interests. Lessin previously cast doubt on that finding, noting he disclosed his personal stake in the issue and no one from the attorney general’s office told him he had to recuse himself entirely.
Virginia Mercury

VCU Police in Richmond are rolling out the chance for people to give feedback after interactions with their officers. Officers on campus are now equipped with QR coded business cards that give VCU students and Richmond residents' direct access to submit concerns, complaints and recommendations after their own brush with the law. A spokesperson for the police department said officers are now required to give them following an interaction, though the spokesperson did not answer if they are given following an arrest.

Lynchburg Mayor MaryJane Dolan sent a letter this week reprimanding Ward IV City Councilman Chris Faraldi following Friday’s Lynchburg City School Board meeting. The mayor’s letter, which Faraldi since has posted on his website, chides him for his “unprovoked interruption and use of vulgar language” during the board meeting, in which the board voted to continue its mask mandate for students despite a recent executive order from Gov. Glenn Youngkin giving parents control over children’s mask-wearing. The incident can be seen on the school board’s recorded video of the special meeting on its YouTube page. While the school board was entertaining a motion to vote on the mask mandate at the end of the meeting, Faraldi can be heard in the background saying “bye” while School Board Chairman James Coleman waited for a motion. Faraldi then opened the doors to the boardroom and could be heard saying, “Y’all are screwed,” before leaving.
The News & Advance

The Mathews County Board of Supervisors had its first split vote Tuesday as chairman Paul Hudgins sought to amend the agenda due to the resignation on Sunday of County Attorney Andrea Erard. The board had been scheduled to hold a closed session in which it would have considered two items requiring consultation with legal counsel—an invoice from the Eubank family, which has been in litigation with the county for several years, and two lawsuits involving newly-elected supervisor Dave Jones—one a suit he brought against the county and the other the county brought against him. Without the attorney present, said Hudgins, those items could not be discussed. He said he would prefer to schedule a special meeting for the closed session. Also on the agenda for the closed meeting was a discussion of Erard’s performance. Both Jones and supervisor Mike Walls argued that this matter did not require an attorney’s presence.
Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal