Transparency News, 2/2/2023


February 2, 2023


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state & local news stories


VCOG's annual legislative chart of FOIA and access-related bills

Yesterday, the crimial law subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee, advanced a bill (5-3) that will allow active and retired state and federal judges and magistrates to submit a written demand to have their personal information (including addresses) from appearing on the Internet unless and until the judges rescind that demand. There's a similar measure in the Senate, and both purport to protect judges but neither will prevent access to the very same information from paper records held by the government, commercial databases and just plain-old human observation. You can watch the discussion of the bill here.

VCOG has tried persuading lawmakers to rein the bill, citing its impact on local land record databases and publication of delinquent tax rolls. These databases are used by commercial sites, employers, lawyers and journalists to verify identity and creditworthiness, for example. They are also used to root out a judge's potential conflicts on a case or as he or she elevates from one court to the next.

Our final argument has been the fact that we have created an exalted class of government employee or official. Simply by walking in with a written demand, "Take me off," Virginia's more than 1200 general distrct, circuit, juvenile and domestic relations, appeals and Supreme Courts judges and magistrates, dozens of current federal district and circuit court judges and magistrates, AND all of the retired members of those entities, get to exempt themselves from everyone else. No one else gets this right to be taken off public databases, not citizens, not government officials, though if you read the story in the national section, you'll see how some election officials are hinting at that, too. And you know they won't be the last to ask for such protection if this protection for judges passes.

It's not too late to let the bill's sponsors (Del. Jay Leftwich, R-Chesapeake, and Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville) know that this isn't good policy. It isn't even effective policy. Protect judges, of course, but not at the risk of public records and not if it means creating a class of citizens and employees to live their entire lives differently from the rest of us simply by demanding, "take me off."

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For nearly 2.5 years, the presence of Denise Kofoid Corbo, At-Large, at Loudoun County Public Schools board meetings has been on a big screen. Corbo’s virtual presence has worn thin with some board members including board Chairman Ian Serotkin, Blue Ridge, who has previously called on her to show up or quit. At the Jan. 24 board meeting, Corbo again requested remote participation for an undisclosed medical reason. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person meetings were cancelled from March 31, 2020, until they resumed on Sept. 8, 2020. Since that date, Corbo has only attended one in-person meeting, on Aug. 5, 2021. All other board members have regularly attended in-person meetings since they resumed, according to LCPS. In an email on Tuesday, Corbo said she was “grateful” that the Loudoun Times-Mirror was writing about her remote participation, but was “not at liberty” to answer questions about it. Corbo said she would answer questions in 10 days. Serotkin said he was confused about her absences in 2021 and called Corbo. He said she told him she never leaves her home except to travel to her other home in Key West, Florida, and that “it’s playing Russian roulette” for her to attend in-person meetings.
Loudoun Times-Mirror

The Town of South Hill has 10 days to produce two documents which a Richmond attorney first sought through Virginia’s open records law in September 2019. Another five documents can be withheld by the town, for now. On Monday, Mecklenburg Circuit Court Judge J. William Watson Jr. ordered the Town of South Hill to turn over by Feb. 10 two documents that the court previously ruled are not exempt from disclosure under Virginia’s Freedom of information Act. The documents have been sought by Richmond lawyer Richard Hawkins in a long-running legal dispute with the town. Although the documents remain under seal for now, they are said to include an unsigned complaint regarding South Hill Town Manager Kim Callis and the working environment at Town Hall, and a petition regarding Callis sent by seven town employees to Town Council’s personnel committee. In a separate ruling also issued on Monday, Watson set a schedule for Hawkins and Missy York, South Hill’s attorney, to provide arguments for why another five documents should or should not be released to Hawkins under the Freedom of Information Act.
News & Record

A trove of documents obtained by 10 On Your Side shine light on teacher fears and parent warnings before a 6-year-old shot his first grade teacher Abby Zwerner on Jan. 6, and that teachers had long been flagging student behavior and school safety issues. In an email sent on the night of the shooting, a parent wrote to former Superintendent George Parker III that she had warned the Richneck principal of a threat two days prior to the shooting. She wrote that the principal had called her on subsequent days and assured her the issue was "handled." "Yet no notification went out to parents in regards to the potential threat, and to stress gun safety awareness or to ensure their firearms were locked away for preventative measures, and then today there was a shooting. I want to know why," she wrote.

Norfolk’s planning director quietly separated from the city last month after a national organization for city planners revoked his credentials for what it said were ethics violations. The city, through its spokesperson, declined to say whether Planning Director George Homewood was fired or resigned. City spokesperson Chris Jones said Homewood’s last day working for the city was Jan. 13. Jones said he could not comment further because of the city’s policy against discussing personnel matters. An exemption to the state’s Freedom of Information Act gives government bodies the option of not sharing personnel information with the public, though they are legally free to do so
The Virginian-Pilot

Virginia is considering codifying a 2020 Supreme Court decision that allowed law enforcement to use and store data from license plate readers while also limiting the storage of most data to 30 days. Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester, the patron of House Bill 1437, said the legislation intends to help law enforcement solve cases involving human trafficking, stolen vehicles and child abductions by accessing data on the state’s roadways. On Oct. 22, 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Fairfax County Public Department, allowing law enforcement to keep their data. The department had appealed an earlier decision ordering it to erase any reader data not linked to a criminal investigation and stop using the readers to “passively” collect data on people who aren’t suspected of criminal activity. 
Virginia Mercury

stories of national interest

"Assistance could involve help with getting a protection order against harassment or threats or advice on dealing with weaponized public records requests."

Brianna Lennon, the clerk for Boone County, Mo., works in a state where harassment and threats have not escalated to the point that local election officials fear for their safety. That doesn’t mean her office doesn’t get calls from voters who are angry about election results, just that they are likely to be upset about outcomes in other states. Lennon, who co-hosts a national podcast on election administration, is hearing more and more about security worries. “It’s really dominating the conversation amongst election officials,” she says. “It used to be that we just talked about cybersecurity, but now we talk about physical safety.” Nonprofit groups formed to support election officials are taking advantage of the time between now and the 2024 election to develop tools and resources to help them navigate this new era of risk. These include supporting legislative efforts to protect the private information of election officials and prevent its publication on the Internet (“doxxing”). Through a form on the Election Official Legal Defense Network website, election officials can make a confidential request for legal assistance, which is provided pro bono through a national network of attorneys recruited by EOLDN. Assistance could involve help with getting a protection order against harassment or threats or advice on dealing with weaponized public records requests.