Transparency News 2/19/14

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
State and Local Stories


While her Chesterfield County School Board colleagues were meeting Tuesday night to try to cut more than $5 million from the school system’s budget, board member Carrie E. Coyner was across the government complex arguing that a local developer she represents should not have to pay fees meant to offset the impact of new houses on schools and other public services. Coyner was arguing before the Chesterfield Planning Commission that a developer she represents should not have to pay proffers — fees meant to offset the impact new houses have on schools and other public services. The county’s commonwealth’s attorney has said Coyner’s work representing developers is not in conflict with her duties as a School Board member. Legal experts have said she could have a problem if it appears she is misusing her position on the board in an attempt to gain an advantage for her developer clients or if she is representing a developer in a matter in which she participated as a School Board member.

Finance software used by Shenandoah County schools remains limited but too costly to replace at this time, the division chief says. Superintendent Jeremy Raley blames the software's limitations for making an information request of the division take much longer than in neighboring counties. OpenRDA, the software the system has been using for the past six years, also limits staff in other ways, Raley said this week, but still meets the division's needs in human resources and finance. Raley said purchasing new software falls well below other needs, and the division receives such a request once a year, if at all. Some software packages cost more than $100,000, he said. "That's why it hasn't risen to the level of importance ... we're able to pay our bills, we're able to get our employees paid," Raley said. "It works for us. It's not the most convenient for these kind of requests, but how often does that really happen?"
Northern Virginia Daily

Rocked by seemingly endless controversy — as well as accusations that officials knowingly keep residents in the dark on major issues — in recent years, city councilors took a step toward bridging the divide last month. But critics remain skeptical of Alexandria’s newly adopted civic engagement handbook, pointing to a wave of recent imbroglios involving everything from bike lanes to lighted athletic fields at T.C. Williams High School.
Alexandria Times

A new effort has been hatched to revamp the way Virginia’s state and congressional districts are drawn. The group One Virginia 2021: Virginians for Fair Redistricting is drawing diverse support from around the state in its push for nonpartisan redistricting that would take the process out of the hands of state legislators. Shannon Valentine, a former Democratic delegate from Lynchburg who is chairwoman of the new group’s transition team, said she believes redistricting “is fundamental to how we are governed.”
Roanoke Times

The fiscal 2015 budget process is, as expected, heating up between the School Board and Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. At the meeting yesterday, the School Board was to present their fiscal 2015 operating budget to the supervisors. The School Board unanimously passed its adopted budget Feb. 5. Chairman Scott York (R-At Large) of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors stirred the pot Feb. 7 by sending a letter requesting the School Board either provide either a "compliance budget" or a cut list for the supervisors consideration.  School Board members, who were visibly frustrated with the chairman's letter, one-by-one pointed out reasons the budget they previously adopted best serves the needs of the county.
Loudoun Times-Mirror

National Stories

The annual Sunshine Week initiative focusing on the importance of open government is scheduled for March 16-22, with events already planned around the nation. As national co-sponsors of Sunshine Week, the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are hosting the main website for information about freedom of information, free materials for participants to use, a calendar of events and a list of participants.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

When sewage and pollutants contaminate North Carolina's waters, the public often is the last to be alerted. While workers in Burlington last month rushed to contain a huge spill of sewage liquids and downstream governments monitored their drinking water, no one reached out to the boaters who paddle the Haw River in the winter. A week later, Duke Energy waited 26 hours to give public notice of an ongoing spill that filled the Dan River with millions of pounds of coal ash. Ten days after the leak was found, the state warned residents not to touch the sludgy material or eat fish from the river.

Georgia’s highest court on Monday gave no clear indication whether it will decide the constitutionality of a new Georgia law that keeps secret that identities makers and suppliers of Georgia's lethal-injection drugs. But a number of the court's justices expressed concern that the law's secrecy may prevent a condemned inmate from determining if he faced an execution that could subject him to cruel and unusual punishment. State attorneys have argued the secrecy law is necessary because businesses that make and supply execution drugs will be unwilling to do so if their names are disclosed because they will be harassed by opponents of capital punishment. Hill's lawyers say the law is so restrictive there is no way a condemned inmate would know if the drugs to be used for an execution could cause impermissible suffering and harm.

In an unprecedented move, the Sullivan County, Tenn., Commission voted Tuesday to remove Mayor Steve Godsey as its chairman and place longtime Commissioner Eddie Williams at the helm. “We are going to run our commission with our people and be responsible for what we are supposed to be responsible for,” Bristol Commissioner Bryan Boyd said, adding, “You can take this as a sign of discomfort [with the mayor].” Williams, who has been involved in county government for decades, said he could not remember a time when the mayor did not serve as chairman, whose job is to run the meetings.
Herald Courier

A coalition of media, public interest and open-government organizations today launched an unprecedented advertising and petition campaign to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to open its doors to cameras. The Coalition for Court Transparency was created to generate momentum for a change in the high court's long-standing resistance toward allowing broadcast access to its proceedings, even as the demands of the Information Age have brought greater transparency to other government institutions.
National Law Journal

A plan by the Department of Homeland security to establish a national license-plate recognition database that would collect information from commercial and law enforcement tag readers is raising concerns over privacy and how the data might be scrutinized. The Washington Post reports that the agency recently issued a solicitation notice seeking bids for the database project, which would collect data from license-plate readers that rapidly scan the tags of passing vehicles, to help track down and arrest fugitive illegal immigrants.
Fox News

AT&T is the latest carrier to share data on government requests for its information, and once again, the sheer amount of requests is staggering. AT&T revealed Tuesday that it received nearly 302,000 data requests in 2013 relating to criminal and civil cases. The demands -- made by federal, state, and local authorities -- include more than 248,000 subpoenas, nearly 37,000 court orders, and more than 16,000 search warrants. In 17,000 cases, AT&T provided no or partial data in response to those demands.

Civic engagement in Denver and Seattle “dropped significantly from 2008 to 2009,”Portland State University professor Lee Shaker says in a paper published at the end of January called “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement” (the published version is paywalled, but Shaker posted a draft of the report last year; all quotes below are from that.) While Shaker allows that other factors may have influenced the drop, measured by the Current Population Survey, it “may plausibly be attributed to the newspaper closures” in those cities.

A photographer for WFSB-TV in Hartford, Conn., filed a suit against the Hartford Police Department in U.S. District Court Tuesday, claiming a police officer demanded his employer discipline him after he flew a drone over an accident scene. In his suit (which you can read below), Pedro Rivera says he was off work on Feb. 1 when he heard about an accident. Once he got to the scene, he flew a drone over it to “record visual images,” the suit says. Police “surrounded the plaintiff, demanded his identification card, and asked him questions about what he was doing,” the suit says. “The plaintiff did not feel as though he were free to leave during the course of this questioning.”

With no federal law on data breaches, most states created their own rules to ensure companies alert residents when hackers seize their personal information. But as massive breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus revive congressional interest in a national notification standard, states are warning Washington: Don’t trample on our turf.


State Senate Republican leader Thomas Norment of James City probably got it right when he said the ethics bill passed last week “is a significant movement in the right direction.” But it is not much more than that. Much work remains to make it the comprehensive measure that most voters were anticipating in light of the expensive gifts and loans received by former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife from a wealthy donor. One of the biggest shortcomings of the new bill, which has also been approved in the House of Delegates, is the absence of any limits on many of the so-called intangible gifts such as meals, sports tickets and trips. An amendment by Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would have barred such trips worth $1,000 or more. The Senate defeated it on a voice vote. Why a voice vote? Because the obvious majority did not want to be recorded as having voted against an important element of the ethics bill.
News & Advance

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel was elected on an unabashedly anti-bypass platform. Still, it is disappointing to see that she has pre-judged the issue before today’s public hearing. Why, then, go to the trouble of collecting public input? Albemarle residents have demonstrated a significant demand for a new public hearing on the Western Bypass — including from opponents who felt they were cheated when the previous Board of Supervisors decided to advance the bypass without public notice.
Daily Progress