Transparency News 2/21/14

Friday, February 21, 2014
State and Local Stories


In the moments after a gunman opened fire on a beloved Alexandria music teacher and her mother’s caregiver, the caregiver ran to a neighbor’s house and said the intruder was still in the home, according to a recording of the 911 call released Wednesday. The recording, released to The Washington Post in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, highlights the chaos and confusion that took hold in Alexandria almost from the moment Ruthanne Lodato, 59, was fatally shot and her mother’s caregiver shot and wounded.
Washington Post

The City of Alexandria released the 911 call from the Ruthanne Lodato shooting, and that apparently came as a surprise to the Alexandria Police Department, according to a police spokeswoman. The Washington Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request for audio of the call and received it "probably from the City Attorney's Office," said Crystal Nosal, public information officer for the police department.  Nosal said the police department "did not know" the audio had been released until they received a phone call from a reporter about it and said they would not release the audio. Patch left a message with the City Attorney's office Thursday. Audio of the 911 call was sent to The Washington Post "inadvertently," from the Alexandria City Attorney's Office, after they filed an FOIA request, said Corine Parks, a paralegal there. "It will not be released again, it was a mistake," she said.  According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, "911 records are presumed open under Va. Code Ann. § 2.2-3706.G., but personal, medical or financial information is those records may be withheld if the safety or privacy of any person is jeopardized."
McLean Patch

The judge presiding over Michael Holmes’ preliminary hearing Thursday allowed The Roanoke Times to take pictures of the proceeding — as long as the photograph was published in black and white. General District Court Judge Gino Williams’ decision came after Holmes’ lawyer, Chris Tuck, objected to the newspaper’s request to be able to photograph the hearing. Tuck said that Holmes’ appearance — in handcuffs and an orange jail jumpsuit — could bias a potential future jury.
Roanoke Times

Parents and other education stakeholders could get more opportunities to voice concerns to the Hanover County School Board under a proposed “Town Hall” style meeting. A couple of concerned residents have suggested the board hold these type of meetings to better facilitate open communication and discussion between meeting attendees and school board members.

National Stories

A Tennessee appeals court last week sent a strong message in a public records lawsuit against the city of Chattanooga, ordering the trial court to award the full $71,343 in attorney fees and expenses incurred by the citizen who brought the case. It was the second time an appeals court overruled the Hamilton County judge in the case. The first time, the Hamilton County judge had found the city had not “acted in bad faith as a result of its slowness in producing the public records requested” and denied the request of Rebecca Little to pay her attorney fees. But the appeals court disagreed, saying the city of Chattanooga “knew it was obligated to produce and willfully did not.” It remanded the case back to the trial court and ordered the judge to determine the amount of attorney’s fees to be awarded. When the judge decided the fee requested was “excessive” and awarded a lower amount of $50,284, Little appealed again. The appeals court on Friday again sided with Little.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government

Critics of a proposed Federal Communications Commission study that would send researchers into newsrooms across America say the new chairman's vow to tweak the plan doesn't go far enough --with one leading media group calling on the agency to scrap the study entirely. "Where it really needs to go is onto the trash heap," Mike Cavender, director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said in a statement.  The FCC drew the ire of free-press advocates and lawmakers after proposing a "study of critical information needs," which one dissenting commissioner said would let researchers "grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run."
Fox News

Thousands of pages of documents released by the New Jersey borough at the center of the George Washington Bridge scandal give a fuller sense of the frustration and problems created by a traffic jam engineered by Gov. Chris Christie's allies and aides. They also provide a glimpse into the role of the Port Authority Police Department in the closures, including the involvement of Lt. Thomas "Chip" Michaels, a friend to Mr. Christie. The more than 2,200 pages of documents include phone records, police and fire reports and correspondence from Fort Lee, N.J., during the five days in September when access to the bridge was reduced from three lanes to one.
Wall Street Journal

The names of people involved in Alabama executions — and the names of manufacturers of the drugs used in lethal injections — would be a secret under a bill now before the Alabama House of Representatives.  "Today there is nothing under Alabama law that makes that information confidential," said Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, the bill's sponsor.
Anniston Star

AT&T this week released for the first time in the phone company’s 140-year history a rough accounting of how often the U.S. government secretly demands records on telephone customers. But to those who’ve been following the National Security Agency leaks, Ma Bell’s numbers come up short by more than 80 million spied-upon Americans. AT&T’s transparency report counts 301,816 total requests for information — spread between subpoenas, court orders and search warrants — in 2013. That includes between 2,000 and 4,000 under the category “national security demands,” which collectively gathered information on about 39,000 to 42,000 different accounts. There was a time when that number would have seemed high. Today, it’s suspiciously low, given the disclosures by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the NSA’s bulk metadata program. We now know that the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is ordering the major telecoms to provide the NSA a firehose of metadata covering every phone call that crosses their networks.


This month's Open Door Award goes to Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News. He serves on the house's General Laws Committee, and specifically on a subcommittee that considers applications of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and considers requests made under FOIA. In that capacity, Del. Yancey recently hosted a group of newspaper editors and other members of the Virginia Press Association to discuss making FOIA a more effective tool for citizens to seek out public information. We believe the Freedom of Information Act is vital to the press and to the general public, and increasingly it is under attack by legislators who want to diminish its power. We appreciate Del. Yancey's effort to get information from those affected by FOIA so that he and his colleagues may better understand the issues.
Daily Press

Virginians seeking public records from a government agency don’t have to tell agency officials why they want the documents. They also don’t have to fill out any government forms to obtain the records. In fact, they don’t have to even put the record request in writing. An oral request is sufficient. These are basic tenants of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that are often misinterpreted or sometimes ignored. That was apparent recently when a Richmond Times–Dispatch reporter made a simple request at the city’s office of Planning and Development Review. He wanted to access two public records: Occupancy permits for two city school buildings.
Dick Hammerstrom, Free Lance-Star

At a Chesterfield County Planning Commission meeting this week, when a question came up about how losing cash proffers would affect local schools, a commissioner asked several times if anyone was in the room representing the school system. School Board member Carrie E. Coyner was in the room, representing a developer asking to eliminate proffers for a project. She was not there on behalf of her school district, and she did not respond to the query of Midlothian District Planning Commissioner Reuben J. Waller Jr. That night, Coyner made her priorities clear. The Chesterfield School Board and Planning Commission were meeting at the same time Tuesday. She was there for the start of the planning session and stayed until its conclusion before heading over to what remained of the School Board budget session. One of the more remarkable aspects of this controversy is how sanguine Coyner’s colleagues appear to be. And if the members of the Board of Supervisors feel agitation, they’ve not gone public.
Michael Paul Williams, Times-Dispatch

Last year’s Virginia elections produced two competitive races for the three statewide offices. Campaigns for the House of Delegates saw almost no competition. Central Virginia, the capital region, did not produce a single close contest. The results reflected the consequences of gerrymandering. Redistricting either protects incumbents or maximizes partisan potential. Observers have noted that politicians decide whom they will represent. Statewide, Virginia is either purple or blue. The House is solid red.

After the 2007 elections, the Virginia General Assembly found itself split. Republicans controlled the House of Delegates and Democrats the state Senate. The Virginia Redistricting Coalition, a bipartisan effort to change the way voting lines are drawn, was born. In 2014, the legislature is in the same position. A new redistricting group has emerged, with some of the same players and the same goal: to take away from the legislators their ability to choose their voters - and not the other way around. Same song, second verse. Unless the public gets involved, the results of this latest effort will be the same as before: no change.
Vivian Paige, Virginian-Pilot