Transparency News 2/12/20



February 12, 2020

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state & local news stories



A judge on Tuesday tossed out a libel lawsuit filed by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax against a television network he accused of slanted reporting on sexual assault allegations against him. U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga in Alexandria dismissed the lawsuit. But he declined to grant CBS’ request that the network be awarded attorney’s fees, disagreeing with the network’s contention that the lawsuit amounted to an abuse of the legal process. Fairfax sued CBS for $400 million in September, after the network aired exclusive interviews with two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, who accused him of sexual assault more than 15 years ago.
AP News

The Virginia legislature passed bills Tuesday that would make it harder to pursue frivolous lawsuits designed to chill free speech, a response to a string of splashy defamation cases filed in state courts by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), actor Johnny Depp and others. Free speech advocates cheered the legislation in the House and Senate, saying the state’s weak anti-defamation law has made Virginia a magnet for dubious litigation aimed at punishing critics and blunting aggressive media coverage on topics of public concern. Nunes, Depp and other litigants have filed defamation cases seeking nearly $1 billion in damages in courts in Virginia over the past year. Their targets include CNN, the New York Times, Twitter, the actress Amber Heard, the Fresno Bee and a parody Twitter account in the voice of an imaginary cow.
The Washington Post

The Winchester Star has obtained information that contradicts the city’s account of what led to Winchester Fire and Rescue Chief William A. Garrett unexpectedly being out of his office for several days in November. Numerous sources with first-hand knowledge of Rouss City Hall’s handling of the situation spoke with The Star over the course of several weeks. Since many of them are current employees of the city, they would only speak on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal. The city’s official explanation for Garrett’s absence states he was out of the office for personal reasons, and he was never suspended or relieved of duty. However, The Star has learned that City Manager Eden Freeman told Garrett he was temporarily relieved of duty, and an interim chief was named to fill his position. In an email on Tuesday, Freeman held firm to her previous statements regarding the situation, writing that “there has been a significant amount of misinformation, unfortunate rumors, and inaccurate statements that are circulating on social media and in the community.” According to information obtained by The Star, a disciplinary action against Garrett was reportedly taken after he publicly questioned proposed changes to the city’s Personal Time Off (PTO) policy that had been developed over the course of several months. 
The Winchester Star

After 20-plus citizens spoke about Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick’s proposed budget during a public comment period at Town Council’s Monday meeting, Mayor Eugene Tewalt called for a two-minute break so citizens could exit the meeting room. After most who spoke left, Town Councilman Jake Meza expressed disappointment at “the dismissal of all the constituents that took the time to come out and speak” and “now, unfortunately, don’t get to hear some of the information that I would think would have alleviated quite a bit of heartburn.” “After the public comment period, Tederick said: “It’s my turn now to speak.” He said: “There were a number of inaccuracies spoken tonight by individuals,” which hopefully stemmed from a lack of information but there seems to be a “concerted effort for disseminating false information.” Tederick said he believes there is a “silent majority” in Front Royal consisting of people “too scared to speak,” as someone told him they could not speak out in favor of the budget due to “fear of quote, ‘what they would do.’” He then mentioned Bonnie Gabbert, who frequently criticizes the town. Tewalt interrupted, saying that citizens were told not to direct criticism at an individual and the same applies to Tederick. Tederick said he will press forward without being affected by politics or “fake outrage,” adding that he will listen to “the reasonable people who have real honest questions and concerns.”
The Northern Virginia Daily

stories of national interest

"NFOIC’s research reveals that oftentimes not much happens when government officials and agencies violate a state’s open records laws."

The National Freedom of Information Coalition iannounced publication of its latest white paper, “Blueprint to Transparency: Non-compliance and Lack of Enforcement  of Open Records Laws in Select U.S. States.” The paper looks at the varying enforcement mechanisms by state governments, including criminal penalties, civil penalties and attorney fee-shifting. NFOIC’s research reveals that oftentimes not much happens when government officials and agencies violate a state’s open records laws, which are intended to provide the public with accessible information from the government. The paper, which includes case studies that take a deep dive into highlighted states,  outlines NFOIC’s five recommendations for states that want to improve their open records enforcement policies and laws.

Burlington (Vermont) Police Deputy Chief Jan Wright will resign later this month after further information about her anonymous social media account activity came to light. In December, former Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo resigned amid outcry over a Twitter account he operated under a pseudonym for an hour before deleting the account. He used the account to anonymously disparage one of his critics. Del Pozo blamed a mental health issue for his behavior stemming from a traumatic brain injury he suffered months before. An investigation later showed that Wright operated several social media accounts under fake names, which she used to discuss police and city policy with residents, criticize public officials, and comment on media stories
Burlington Free Press

editorials & columns

"Try to understand it or influence it. Without professional support, i.e. a paid lobbyist, you won’t get far. Your likely impact? Zippo."

The manner of making laws in Virginia has reached terminal overload. The machinery is kaput. You may see it for yourself. Just drive up there [to Richmond] and look. Worse,try to understand it or influence it. Without professional support, i.e. a paid lobbyist, you won’t get far. Your likely impact? Zippo. That’s a problem. The current legislative state of affairs in Virginia breaks faith with the ideals of self-government. . . . As it happened, an accommodation was reached to establish “long” 60-day sessions (presently underway), followed the next year by a “short” 45-day session. Long, short, long, short.  Well, that never really worked either, because no one had the heart or muscle to address its growing inadequacies. So, lawmakers would fashion ad-hoc solutions, as they happen to be doing right now, to avoid hearings, amendments and time-consuming deliberation.
That’s right. Kill the deliberation part.
Daily Press