Transparency News, 2/22/21


 February 22, 2021
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state & local news stories
“So let me now share publicly what Virginia Tech wanted to keep confidential.”

The House Courts of Justice Committee held a 3.5-hour virtual meeting on Saturday afternoon. After all the docketed bills had been heard, two separate motions were made to rehear bills that had died in subcommittee on tie votes. Neither bill was on the docket. The chair allowed one bill to be heard (it was similar to a bill that had already been approved by the House as a whole) and it was approved unanimously. Before the bill was taken up, though, Del. Jay Leftwich (R-Chesapeake) said he was uncomfortable that they were taking up a bill that the public had no notice of. Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News) made similar comments after a motion to reconsider was made by Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) on the second bill. In the end, Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), chair of the committee, consulted with the Speaker of the House and ruled the motion out of order. She pointed out that House operating rules required someone on the winning side of the motion in subcommittee to bring it up again in the full committee, which wasn't the case when Levine raised it. Herring then noted that for the subcommittee system to work, the results needed to be accepted. She said she didn't want the committee to become one where members say, "Aw, shucks, I lost in the sub. Let me try again in the full committee."
House video of Herring's comments

Virginia is one step closer to requiring public officials to release records from closed criminal investigations, something 32 states and the federal government already do. On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology voted 8-2 to advance a bill that would broaden public records laws and stop law enforcement and prosecutors from shielding investigative files from the public. The bill passed 55-44 in the House of Delegates on Feb. 4. Advocates for the bill say changing the law would not only lead to more transparency but would also help exonerate anyone who has been wrongly convicted of a crime, ensure fairness in investigations of police killings, and help deliver justice for families who lost loved ones due to crimes. The bill’s sponsor, Del. Chris Hurst, said this would be a major reform for the Freedom of Information Act. “As a former journalist, I never in a million years thought this is something that would be considered in Virginia,” he said. “The impact it will have is going to be tremendous.”
The Virginian-Pilot

The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation this week that lawmakers said will increase transparency and equity in the judicial system, which disproportionately impacts communities of color. The bills, introduced by Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Delegate Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will create a centralized, publicly-accessible data collection system on pretrial detention. Senate Bill 1391 and House Bill 2110 both passed Thursday, February 18. The bills require the VCSC to compile and share data on the sex, age, race, and zip code of an individual charged with a crime. The individual’s criminal background will also be included in the report without their name. No case-identifying information could be accessed through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or made publicly available, per the bills.

Former Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson and Jason Fawcett, the son of City Councilman Roger Fawcett, are among the candidates to fill the vacant Sleepy Hole Borough seat on the Suffolk School Board. Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck announced the names of the six candidates during the board’s Feb. 11 meeting following a closed session and public hearing on the candidates. At the end of the closed session and prior to adjourning the Feb. 18 special meeting, Brooks-Buck said there was “a false and misleading statement posted on Facebook” — she did not identify whose Facebook post it was — alleging that the board was meeting illegally and in violation of a Freedom of Information Act requirement because interviews with prospective School Board candidates should have been made public. When the City Council was considering candidates for the Chuckatuck Borough seat to replace Mike Duman, who now serves as mayor, it had 21 applicants for the seat. However, in responding to a FOIA request, the city did not name any of the candidates, saying that state code “exempts personnel records containing information concerning identifiable individuals,” adding that “the Attorney General has held that applications for appointment or employment are exempt from disclosure as personnel records, and therefore applications submitted to fill the City Council Chuckatuck Borough vacancy would be exempt from disclosure.”
Suffolk News-Herald

Lawyers who sued Virginia Tech on behalf of former cadets blasted the university on Sunday, alleging that its statement about the cases violated the confidentiality provisions of the settlements. Tech said Friday that it was “pleased with the outcome” of the lawsuits, adding that the settlements affirmed that the policies and procedures of the Corps of Cadets and Student Conduct office were sound. “And again, given the outcome, we do not anticipate any further litigation because, again, our policies and procedures and how we manage these programs has been affirmed,” Mark Owczarski, a university spokesman, had said. “As a condition of settlement, Virginia Tech insisted on a confidentiality provision that prohibited any statement to the press, other than that ‘the case has been resolved to the parties’ mutual satisfaction.’ They wanted to keep the settlement private,” Roanoke attorney Rob Dean said in an emailed statement Sunday after a story that included Tech’s statement was published in The Roanoke Times. “For Virginia Tech to now breach its own confidentiality provision and suggest publicly that the case outcome affirmed the proper application of its policies and procedures, is incorrect.”  Dean said the settlement agreement allowed his clients to correct the record in response to any breach of the confidentiality provision.  “So let me now share publicly what Virginia Tech wanted to keep confidential,” said Dean, who represented students in five of the lawsuits. 
The Roanoke Times

The 1A podcast on Feb. 16 “Local Spotlight: The Power of FOIA.”  A good telling, from both sides, of the attempt of The Advocate (La.) to get records and the state’s concern about privacy. Background on the law and current situations comes from Charles Ornstein of ProPublica. 



editorials & columns
As a former school board member and vice chair, I am dismayed by the events at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Montgomery County School Board, especially the conduct of my former colleague, Board Chair Marti Graham. Ms. Graham’s actions to limit board discussion, move up a previously scheduled vote, and eliminate public address on a topic that affects the entire community are worrisome....My third and deepest concern is that limitation on speech. Chair Graham is not allowing public address at this special session. The special meeting policy does not prohibit public address and public address was included in the Dec. 8 special session. No explanation was given by Chair Graham for not allowing public address other than her statement “because I can.” Just because she can does not mean she should. 
Connie Froggatt, The Roanoke Times