Transparency News, 2/21/2022


February 21, 2022

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state & local news stories


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Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has made parental choice in the classroom — when it comes to masks and also curriculum — the centerpiece policy of his campaign and government. He signed an executive order hours after inauguration essentially making masks optional, has fended off multiple lawsuits objecting to the policy and on Wednesday signed a bill that enshrines the policy into state law. But as he pressed forward, people who form the backbone of public health services in Virginia lodged questions and concerns about the science behind statements that undercut the effectiveness of masks, according to internal emails obtained through an open records request. Epidemiologists and health directors asked Youngkin’s pick for state health director, Colin Greene, how they should answer questions from residents and school officials.
The Washington Post

The 2014 email to Donna Pace Foster telling her she’d have more duties at the Department of Corrections without more pay was blunt. She wasn’t yet aware that she was earning at least $10,000 a year less than the last two people who held the job. But over the next six years, she did everything she needed to do. Every year, she asked for extra pay for the extra work she was doing and, every year, the Department of Corrections told her no. In 2020, she filed an internal grievance over her salary. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reviewed records provided by Foster and records obtained independently about her situation. At nearly every level, the records show, powerful DOC officials sided with each other in denying Foster’s requests for a comparison of her salary to similar positions outside of DOC. They defended the official who she said berated her. And they denied that the write-ups — which ended up all but dismissed — came in retaliation for her salary grievance. Citing a state policy that does not allow release of personal information about government employees without their permission, top DOC officials, including Director Harold Clarke, declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Phil Wittmer, chosen by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to lead Virginia’s information technology agency, is leaving after less than a month on the job. The governor’s office confirmed Friday that Wittmer is stepping down as chief information officer at the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, known as VITA. The governor’s office gave no explanation.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The number of police officers pulled from their positions for dishonesty or excessive force is growing in Virginia. According to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services' master list, 146 officers have been decertified as of mid-January. Meaning, they’re currently not allowed to serve as law enforcement officers in the Commonwealth. 8News first looked at the Virginia master list of decertified officers back in July. Since then, 46 new officers were added. More than half of the 146 officers decertified were added to the list in just the past two years. The department began keeping a list in 1999.

The former Virginia Beach economic development director who admitted to using city funds to pay for extravagant trips, meals and other personal expenditures totaling almost $80,000 will be able to pay a significant portion of it back with his unused leave time, according to city officials. Warren Harris pleaded guilty last year to four of the 14 counts of felony embezzlement he faced. At his sentencing Monday, Circuit Judge Steven Frucci ordered Harris to reimburse the city for the $79,479 in illegal charges prosecutors determined he made. The improper spending included a trip to Spain to attend the Running of the Bulls festival and a trip to Dubai. As for the money he owes, Harris will be able to pay back $32,572 — or about 40% of the total — with the unused leave time accumulated before he abruptly resigned in 2018 amid an investigation of his credit card spending. Typically when an employee resigns, they receive compensation for unused leave time shortly after their departure, said City Auditor Lyndon Remias, the official who notified law enforcement about Harris’ crimes. Because Harris was under investigation, his unused leave pay was frozen until the case was resolved, Remias said. Days that prosecutors determined Harris wasn’t actually working were subtracted from the total, he said.
The Virginian-Pilot

The oldest document in the Rockingham County Circuit Court is written on vellum. On the paper made of animal skin, the land grant from the 1730’s was written during the reign of King George II. It allowed colonists to settle land in Virginia. Though not quite as old as this one, the Rockingham County Circuit Court contains tens of thousands of historic records from the 1780’s through the Prohibition Era. For many decades, it wasn’t known what records the historic archive contained. But beginning in 2017, a partnership between the circuit court and James Madison University has made over 20,000 pages of these historic court documents available in an interactive digital archive. When Chaz Haywood was sworn in as clerk of court in 2008, he was interested in the historic documents, which the court is required to keep forever, but not required to keep organized. Most of the archival records were packed away in boxes, rolled up and tied with twine and even stuffed into drawers in an upstairs space in the court.
Daily News Record

Twice a week 15-year-old Lianna Schmieder scrutinizes centuries-old scrawl. She and her classmates at Roadstead Montessori High School in Ghent drag out stacks of folders containing printed copies of documents including receipts of slave sales and ship manifests. They parse the names of men, women and children who were shipped South. The work is meticulous. But the callousness behind the papers never ceases to strike Schmieder: enslaved babies and pregnant women listed next to cargo items. “It’s not really real until you see all these names on paper,” she said. “You see these people who were 9 years old. It makes it much more real. There are so many names we have and there’s probably more that weren’t even written down.” The task of Schmieder, a freshman, is “quality control.” She compares the names transcribed by other students against a spreadsheet to find any mistakes. The students have dedicated hours over the past several years to deciphering the writings of people in the 1800s involved in the flourishing local slave trade. They’re helping Troy Valos, special collections and supervising librarian with the Norfolk Public Library’s Sargeant Memorial Collection; he’s worked the past dozen years to document Norfolk’s long-overlooked and outsized role in the domestic slave trade.
The Virginian-Pilot

stories of national interest

"Freedom of information advocates worry that state lawmakers will use the requests to weaken open records laws."

Public school districts in Minnesota are being inundated with data requests related to hot-button topics like critical race theory and COVID protocols, mostly from conservative groups. It's caused headaches for administrators and sparked a debate about freedom of information laws, according to our education news partner, The 74. Why it matters: School districts told The 74 that fulfilling the requests is sucking up staff time and money, while freedom of information advocates worry that state lawmakers will use the requests to weaken open records laws.
Axios Twin Cities

An archival activist who’s long been a thorn in the side of New York bureaucrats says an attempted cash grab by the city sparked her bid to get millions of its historical records — so she can put them online, for free, “forever,” according to a lawsuit. Brooke Schreier Ganz’s nonprofit, Reclaim the Records, has already put online more than 30 million public documents since 2015, including searchable indexes listing old births, deaths and marriages. The group targets records it says are “wrongly restricted” by local governments. A New York native who lives in California, Ganz and Reclaim the Records have already beaten the city in court three times as it fights for records.
New York Post


editorials & columns

"Better yet, state and local governments would refrain from the regular use of these services entirely, and rely instead on tools built for the purpose of archivable communication."

The end-to-end encrypted messaging service WhatsApp is awfully handy for the everyday texter, providing a degree of built-in privacy for those wary of snoops and even offering an auto-delete option that ensures chats disappear into the ether. Apparently, public officials agree — even when the law requires them not to hide. Adoption of these text-wiping services almost certainly violates the spirit, if not the letter, of open-records laws. But because it is nigh impossible for an outsider to prove the use of an app designed to delete evidence of precisely that, much less to identify what communications on what subjects have been purged, no technological reckoning has arrived. At the very least, the city ought to mandate that communications sent on private systems be backed up to an official server — effectively banning any chat-destruction tools in the process. Better yet, state and local governments would refrain from the regular use of these services entirely, and rely instead on tools built for the purpose of archivable communication.
The Washington Post

Staunton prides itself on being the first city in the United States to appoint a city manager (1908). Recently the city council forced the resignation of its city manager. Who in the world would want to become the new city manager under these circumstances?  There was no reason given for the forced resignation except that “it was time for us to move on in a different direction.” Neither Andrea Oakes nor Steve Rosenberg who resigned nor anyone else has been forthcoming with more transparency. Who would want this job?   I do not know the former city manager Steve Rosenberg, nor do I know any member of his family or any of his friends. I have never had any dealings whatsoever with the city manager’s office during the over 35 years I have lived in Staunton. None of this is personal. I do know what it is like to evaluate potential employers, although in my case the employers were churches, not city councils.  Churches, like city councils, get a reputation. I would not want to work for people who seem to have forced out the last pastor for unknown reasons. 
Pat Hunt, News Leader