Transparency News 2/14/20



February 14, 2020

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state & local news stories



Following a public rebuke at December’s Chesterfield County School Board meeting from then-chairman Rob Thompson, a citizen watchdog is challenging his claim that she sent the school system nearly 800 Freedom of Information Act requests in the last four years. The actual number, according to the school system’s own records, is far lower. At their final meeting on Dec. 9, Thompson took a parting shot at a small number of individuals who have frequently worked to expose instances of mismanagement and other problems within Chesterfield County Public Schools. Saying that he was “all about public information,” Thompson referred to many of the FOIA requests filed by these citizen watchdogs as “frivolous,” and called out citizens Brenda Stewart and Ron Hayes by name. Citing an email dated Nov. 12, 2019, by Assistant School Board Attorney Stephanie Frick, Stewart says the number of FOIA emails sent by her to the school system from Aug. 29, 2016, through Nov. 11, 2019, was actually 241. In a subsequent email, school spokesman Tim Bullis gave a similar figure, saying Stewart sent 243 FOIA emails between September 2016 and November 2019, and that these were broken down into 398 individual requests. By email, Bullis said Thompson appeared “to have transposed the numbers,” likely due to the shading of the chart making it difficult to read.
Chesterfield Observer

Weeks after a final order was entered in a civil case involving the mayor of Strasburg and a petition for his removal, the mayor and his attorney filed a notice of appeal to take the matter to the Supreme Court of Virginia last month. Strasburg residents filed a petition to remove Richard Orndorff Jr. from office in September in a bid that ultimately failed before the court on Jan. 3. The months-long back and forth that involved Orndorff hiring Phil Griffin II to represent him in the matter in Shenandoah County Circuit  Court resulted in a legal bill of almost $18,000 that Orndorff may not be able to pay. In November Griffin argued that the town of Strasburg should be responsible for Orndorff’s attorney fees, pointing to a botched filing deadline and poorly worded language in the petition. When the commonwealth failed to file a rebuttal to Griffin’s claim, he argued that no response was an endorsement of his claim. On. Jan. 3, Judge Alexander Iden ruled that Strasburg was responsible for some of Orndorff’s fees but wrote that Griffin’s bill overestimated the amount of time and resources that needed to be spent on the case. Iden ruled that Strasburg needed to pay Griffin $2,700 for his time. Griffin appealed the final order, arguing that the court did not consider the time he spent traveling for research and precedents set by other courts.
The Northern Virginia Daily


editorials & columns

"Just last week we submitted two additional FOIAs to the city pertaining to Seminary Road that cost $407. For a small newspaper, that’s a lot of money."

Requests under the Freedom of Information Act can be expensive, and they’re not free for media companies – contrary to popular belief – when FOIAs are made to local or state governments. Only FOIAs to the federal government are free for media companies. Our recent experience in relying on city residents to provide the Times with FOIAed documents pertaining to Seminary Road, for which they paid more than $500, has led us to believe our FOIAs need to be independent. We need to be the entity that decides the parameters for and submits the FOIAs that we use for our stories. While that sounds good, the snag is money. For instance, just last week we submitted two additional FOIAs to the city pertaining to Seminary Road that cost $407. For a small newspaper, that’s a lot of money. So we have established a FOIA Fund on GoFundMe that will enable people to contribute to the Times’ investigative efforts.
Alexandria Times

For the last decade or so, lots of smart people have debated the purpose and value of social media. And if I work in local government, how do I use this tool to tell our story without alienating or angering the people, families and businesses that call our community home? Getting social media right in any environment is hard, but local government — which is, as a result of painful experience, risk-averse — presents unique challenges. Even the most well-intended tweet or status update can easily descend into a rage-filled comment section. Just try posting something on Facebook about an upcoming City Council meeting where a proposal to allow apartment buildings in a single-family neighborhood will be discussed. Seriously. Go ahead. Try it.  You will regret it. The result of this (very justifiable) caution is a hesitancy to use social media for one of its most effective purposes. Since its inception, social media has been an incredibly effective tool for community building. Unfortunately, most local governments use social media only to push information toward residents rather than to engage them.
Dustin McKissen, Governing