Transparency News 2/13/18

February 13, 2018
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
state & local news stories
quote_1.jpgFollow the bills we follow on VCOG annual legislative chart.
Yesterday, the Senate passed SB751, which would require localities & school divisions over a certain size to post online checkbook-level registries on a quarterly basis by July 2019. The vote was 26-13-1.

A judge denied The Virginian-Pilot’s request Monday for a transcript of part of a hearing in the case against Councilman Mark Whitaker that was closed to the public. In November, retired Hampton Circuit Judge William Andrews III ordered the public out of the courtroom about 45 minutes into a three-hour hearing so attorneys could argue two motions in private. They involved the discussion of grand jury testimony the court previously sealed. The Pilot filed an objection to the closure with the court and requested a transcript of the hearing. In court Monday, Conrad Shumadine, The Pilot’s attorney, said it’s “very important” that the press monitor court proceedings – particularly those involving a public official – so that the public knows what’s going on. Secrecy surrounding grand jury testimony vanishes when that testimony is used in court to determine whether a case should continue, he argued. Special prosecutor Andrew Robbins countered that grand jury proceedings are protected by state statute from public disclosure. In denying The Pilot’s request for a transcript Monday, Andrews said the interests of grand jury secrecy and Whitaker’s right to a fair trial outweighed the public’s right to know.
The Virginian-Pilot

The Hampton School Board voted to rename Jefferson Davis Middle School last month after little public or private discussion as a group. The board’s 6 to 0 vote — member Butch Harper was absent at the Jan. 24 meeting — instead came after individual phone calls between chairman Jason Samuels and the rest of the seven-member board. The board did not discuss the names through emails or text messages, according to a response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Daily Press. Conducting business on a one-on-one phone call basis is more common, said both Samuels and Mugler, who served as chairwoman for four years
Daily Press
editorials & columns
quote_3.jpg"Many in government positions believe that the public should be made aware only on a 'need to know' basis."
With friends of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act like state Sen. Richard Stuart, who needs enemies? The Republican from Montross sponsored a bill this General Assembly session that would’ve exempted the judiciary branch from Virginia’s public records law. Sensing the cascading momentum against SB 727 from other senators and some citizens, Stuart last week waved the white flag. Sen. Stuart’s spearheading of secrecy is stupefying. We have this account from Patrick Wilson, a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (and my former colleague at The Pilot): Open-government advocates opposed Stuart’s bill, saying it could make it tough for the public to get records related to judicial contracts, criminal justice changes, and other topics. At the committee hearing, Stuart struggled to explain his reasoning for the bill. And there’s this: Stuart filed his bill without any review by the FOIA council. Even though he’s a member of the council, he’d missed nine of the past 10 meetings over the last two years. Alan Gernhardt, executive director and senior attorney for the council, confirmed that spotty attendance record to me. It’s bad enough Virginia’s FOIA law isn’t the most robust. It would be great if delegates and senators strengthened the law, instead of trying to neuter it.
Roger Chesley, The Virginian-Pilot

FOIA empowers the average everyday folks to hold politicians and government bureaucrats in check. Yet many in government positions believe that the public should be made aware only on a “need to know” basis. This elitist mentality fosters corruption and cronyism. Shielding government documents and political decisions from public oversight is an assault on our democracy. Deficiencies in FOIA extend to the local level, including exemptions regarding council and supervisor vacancies that may be filled by the elected body without any input from citizens. Also exempted are appointments to boards and commissions made by local officials. Consider that members of the planning commission, parks board, cable commission, parking authority and more may be appointed without the public knowledge regarding the applicants or the selection process. These are not merely administrative position. Those appointed will make recommendations affecting regulations and tax policy, hence the public has every right to information regarding the appointments.
Jon Russell, Culpeper Star-Exponent