Transparency News 1/6/20



January 6, 2020


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state & local news stories



The Leesburg Town Council convened Dec. 23 for a special meeting to discuss the proposed authorization of a non-disclosure agreement between the town and Microsoft Corporation, which ultimately passed. In September 2018, the tech behemoth purchased 332 acres of Leesburg property at the Compass Creek development for a reported $73 million. The company proposed to open a data center, referred to in Town Council documents as Phase I, on the purchased land. The non-disclosure agreement was first brought up at the council's public Dec. 10 meeting and was taken into closed session on Dec. 23 so the matter might be resolved before the next public meeting on Jan. 14. "This agreement will enable town staff to continue to work closely with Microsoft while reducing the chances that otherwise confidential information specific to the company would become available to their potential competitors," Town Attorney Barbara Notar said during the Dec. 23 meeting. As long as the agreement is in place, neither party can disclose the other's confidential information for five years after receiving it, according to the written agreement. "Confidential information" is broadly defined in the agreement as "non-public information, know-how and trade secrets in any form that are designated as 'confidential' by Microsoft and can be legally excluded from mandatory disclosure within the Town’s discretion under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act." Councilman Ron Campbell expressed his desire for greater specificity as to what constitutes confidential information.
Loudoun Times-Mirror

A veterans group said this week that the Pentagon has stopped releasing information that helps former service members to contest less-than-honorable discharges from the military. The Defense Department has been breaking the law since April, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Virginia by the National Veterans Legal Services Program. The group says it lacks access to decisions made by military review boards. The boards grant or deny a veteran’s request to upgrade a less-than-honorable discharge. Veterans’ lawyers study those decisions in hopes of building successful arguments for their clients.
Richmond Times-Dispatch Inc. is weighing methods for securing its second headquarters and appears to be looking across the pond for ideas. The U.S. embassy in London, described by its architect as among the safest buildings in Britain, avoids fences in favor of a number of "defense strategies" disguised as a "welcoming landscape that is experienced as a public park," an Amazon representative told Arlington County officials in documents obtained by the Washington Business Journal through the Freedom of Information Act. "Its concrete barriers are disguised as natural landscaping, its anti-truck bollards as hedges, and its 'moat' as an ornamental pond that separates the public from the building," read an Aug. 1 email from Florence Chung, Amazon Corporate Security's lead on public-private partnerships. Chung acts as a conduit between Amazon's security team and law enforcement agencies where the company is setting up corporate offices, according to her emails.
Washington Business Journal


stories of national interest

The names of car owners ticketed by automated speed cameras are not a public record, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday. The court was considering a lawsuit filed by a former Ottumwa police sergeant who was ticketed while driving a city-owned car in May 2016 by the city’s speed camera. Mark Milligan filed an open records request after he was given the ticket as the driver. Typically, such citations go to the vehicle’s owner. Milligan wanted to see the names of car owners caught on camera and ticketed and those caught speeding by the automated camera but not given a ticket. Many cities do not enforce the automated fines against public officials driving government vehicles. The city denied his request, arguing that the names of people ticketed are confidential under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act passed in 1994 and a similar state law designed to protect personal records maintained by state transportation officials.
The Gazette

Newspaper stories, lawsuits, real estate deals and genealogy searches often begin the same way: with a public records request. In Maryland, after complaints about the accessibility of supposedly accessible documents, officials tasked with handling disagreements over such requests are recommending a change. State officials concluded in a recent report the state’s public records laws should be altered so agencies that improperly withhold records can be forced to release them before citizens initiate costly court fights. “Experience teaches that all too often, extraneous considerations such as political sensitivity, controversy, [and] fear of public criticism … will dictate many PIA outcomes, making problems such as unlawful delay, wrongful denials, and refusal to compromise,” according to the 54-page report. The report recommended the ombudsman, who can only mediate disputes, and the review board, which can only issue decisions in cases involving records processing fees of more than $350, be given more resources and the authority to issue binding decisions on PIA disputes.
The Washington Post

A newspaper’s review of Maryland court records has found an apparent loophole that allows documents filed electronically to be kept from the public. The Capital reported Sunday that court documents filed through the state’s electronic record-keeping system can be made secret by attorneys, judges and clerks and their staffers without a court order or public notice. In contrast, attorneys who want a record kept secret must obtain an order from a judge when filing by paper. That process requires notice and an opportunity for any interested party to intervene. The newspaper reported it’s unclear how many records have been so easily sealed across the state.
The Washington Post

More than a year after his death, a cache of computer files saved on the hard drives of Thomas Hofeller, a prominent Republican redistricting strategist, is becoming public. Republican state lawmakers in North Carolina fought in court to keep copies of these maps, spreadsheets and other documents from entering the public record. But some files have already come to light in recent months through court filings and news reports.


quote_2.jpg“Experience teaches that all too often, extraneous considerations such as political sensitivity, controversy, [and] fear of public criticism … will dictate many Public Information Act outcomes.”