Transparency News 1/8/20



Hundreds of bills were posted yesterday, and we've got the FOIA-related ones on our chart. We also track bills affecting access writ large, including proactive publication of government data, court records and requirements for public hearings. A large portion of the FOIA bills have to do with the possible extension of casino gambling, legalization of marijuana and redistricting reformCheck them out here

On Tuesday, Jan. 7 supervisors were set to vote on new rules of order that will largely resemble those first approved by the previous board—except for a new section that allows the board to punish supervisors who talk about what the board discusses behind closed doors. In Virginia, the Freedom of Information Act allows elected officials to hold closed-door meetings and to shield records from the public in certain situations, but in almost no circumstances requires it. The law also does not prohibit elected officials in one of those closed-door meetings from talking about what happens in that meeting publicly if they choose to do so. Under the proposed new rules, if a member speaks out, the board will vote to either retroactively approve that disclosure or reaffirm the decision to keep that information secret. The board may also vote to sanction or censure a board member for “improper disclosure” of that information.

The Warren County Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting once again delayed voting on whether $37,827 of county money will be used to fund the legal defenses of current and former Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority board members. The legal fees are related to the misdemeanor counts of misfeasance and nonfeasance that 14 current and former county officials were indicted on in September. About a month later, those charges were dismissed because misfeasance and nonfeasance are not actual crimes. The vote regarding the EDA board members' requested legal fees was already delayed once, with former supervisors saying they wanted to leave the decision up to the newly elected board. Tuesday was the first meeting in which the three new supervisors - Walter Mabe, Delores Oates and Cheryl Cullers - participated. Cullers said she had questions regarding the request and asked if the matter could be further discussed in a closed meeting or work session. County Attorney Jason Hamm responded that it would be appropriate to have a work session regarding the matter but he cannot think of a reason why it should be discussed in a meeting closed to the public.
The Northern Virginia Daily


stories of national interest

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed a veteran state government lawyer to serve as New York’s top advocate for government transparency, administration officials said Monday. Shoshanah Bewlay, general counsel for the state Office of Information Technology Services, will take over as executive director this week at the Committee on Open Government, according to Secretary of State Rossana Rosado, who oversees the office. Bewlay, 48, will fill the position left open in June after the abrupt firing of Robert Freeman, 72, who held the post for decades under seven different New York governors. State investigators accused Freeman of sexual misconduct in the workplace after finding he acted inappropriately with a female newspaper reporter and used his work email account to exchange sexually suggestive messages with a woman he met at Syracuse University.

When professors moonlight, the income may influence their research and policy views. Although most universities track this outside work, the records have rarely been accessible to the public, potentially obscuring conflicts of interests. That changed last month when ProPublica launched Dollars for Profs, an interactive database that, for the first time ever, allows you to look up more than 37,000 faculty and staff disclosures from about 20 public universities and the National Institutes of Health. We believe there are hundreds of stories in this database, and we hope to tell as many as possible. Already, we’ve revealed how the University of California’s weak monitoring of conflicts has allowed faculty members to underreport their outside income, potentially depriving the university of millions of dollars. In addition, using a database of NIH records, we found that health researchers have acknowledged a total of at least $188 million in financial conflicts of interest since 2012.

Horry County, South Carolina, continues to charge for public records without explanation of how those fees were calculated. The Sun News filed similar Freedom of Information Act requests Oct. 29, 2019, with the county, Horry County Schools and Myrtle Beach for records detailing attorney fees in the lawsuit concerning the redevelopment of the former Air Force base. The county and school district jointly filed the suit in December 2018 alleging the city and Myrtle Beach Air Force Base Redevelopment Authority are misusing tax increment financing and taxpayer funds on a project the county and school district argue has already been completed. Horry County quickly responded, estimating the cost of fulfilling the request to be $90.25. Aaron Spelbring, the county’s FOIA manager responded that “(t)he fees assessed are in compliance with the SC FOIA” when asked for a breakdown of the projected costs. The Sun News paid the $90.25, and the county emailed 56 pages, but redacted the majority of the invoices, including any dates. The documents included 40 pages that were either completely blank or just had the name of the law firm at the top of the page and 16 pages that showed just a line with “Balance Due Now” and a number.
The Sun News





editorials & columns


Bringing the process of government into wider and deeper focus, making documents and meetings more accessible, empowering citizens and members of the media — these are goals that should be shared by all who serve in public office and which help forge a stronger commonwealth. Begin with the work of Transparency Virginia, discussed in the space a few weeks ago. The group is a coalition of open-government advocates that has focused its efforts on making the General Assembly’s work more transparent — easier to follow for those in Richmond and more accessible to those from further afield who want to keep tabs on lawmaking. In recent years, Republican leadership did very well to open the legislative process to public view. It curbed some discouraging habits — such as abruptly changing the time and location of hearings without notice and allowing brief committee meetings about bills to take place at a member’s desk on the floor — and expanded the video broadcast and recording of sessions and committee meetings. It’s critical that Democrats extend that record of progress now that they hold power. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government, offered some suggestions for doing so in a letter she authored on behalf of Transparency Virginia, delivered to House and Senate leaders last month.
Daily Press