Transparency News, 2/3/2023


February 3, 2023

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state & local news stories

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

A bill that would exempt the Fort Monroe Authority from complying with certain provisions of the Freedom of Information Act is progressing through the General Assembly. “I would say this is needed because some information is just private, and I don’t think we have freedom if we don’t have privacy,” Del. A.C. Cordoza said last week. Cordoza, a Hampton Republican who sits on the authority’s board of trustees, introduced the bill in the House. Hampton Democrat Mamie Locke, another board member, is carrying the measure in the Senate. The House of Delegates passed Cordoza’s bill Wednesday 60-40. Locke’s bill reported out of the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology this week with a unanimous vote. Glenn Oder, the authority’s executive director, told legislators last week the bill was needed. Developers were reluctant to do business with the authority because they don’t want their financial information to be subject to FOIA, he said. Del. Danica Roem, a Manassas Democrat who voted against the measure, said she was skeptical. “The Freedom of Information Act does not exist to comfort residential or commercial developers,” she said. “It is for the public to have the most amount of access to its government as possible.”
Daily Press

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook has personally pared down the list of candidates vying for former Council Member Sena Magill’s seat from 20 to six. And while much of his short list reads like a who’s who of local government, some are crying foul over the process. “I don’t think it’s democratic or transparent,” former Council Member Dede Smith told The Daily Progress on Thursday. “It’s bad governance, and I don’t think it’s fair.” What’s not fair, Smith said, is that prospective applicants were initially told they’d be heard by the council and the public. Now, that opportunity is reserved for just the six Snook selected. Snook, a lawyer, contends that Virginia’s open government law gives him the right to trim the list after contacting individual council members for their input. “I counted noses,” he told The Daily Progress in an email. Megan Rhyne, the director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said that the practice of public officials holding one-on-one meetings violates the spirit, but not the letter, of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
The Daily Progress

A former Portsmouth deputy city manager hired under ex-City Manager Tonya Chapman has filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging she was wrongfully terminated after refusing a bribe from Chapman to resign. Sunshine Swinson was hired on Nov. 14 with a salary of $150,000, and she parted ways with the city on Dec. 1. When The Virginian-Pilot reported the departure, it was unclear whether Swinson resigned or was terminated. But in the lawsuit filed in Circuit Court this week, Swinson said she was first asked to resign and take the blame for a set of gift cards containing federal pandemic money that Chapman previously said might have been mismanaged under her predecessor, Angel Jones. When she refused, Swinson said she was fired. Chapman strongly denied the allegations levied in the lawsuit, calling them “emphatically false.” “Her dismissal had absolutely nothing to do with gift cards,” Chapman said in a statement to the Pilot.
The Virginian-Pilot

Leabern Kennedy spent a year working to prevent the General Assembly from killing her hometown, and she was finally at the Capitol this week to get the verdict. She had driven more than six hours from Pound, the hamlet in Wise County in far southwestern Virginia where Kennedy serves as vice mayor. First stop: The office of House Majority Leader Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), who sponsored a bill in 2022 to revoke Pound’s charter over problems that had left the local government barely functioning. Pound’s troubles were so deep that council meetings regularly turned into shouting matches. Every town employee had quit or been fired; the police department was disbanded; local businesses refused to keep paying taxes. Kilgore’s bill — which passed the House and Senate and was signed into law last year by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) — set Nov. 1, 2023, as the date when the charter would dissolve. Lawmakers said they’d rescind the death sentence in this year’s General Assembly session if the town got its act together. So over the past year, that group — with help from the Virginia Municipal League and a local lawyer — slogged through a painful process of putting their government back together.
The Washington Post

stories of national interest

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Tuesday reversed a lower court’s decision allowing the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to withhold the names of its pentobarbital suppliers. BOP withheld the names of the pentobarbital suppliers, claiming justification under Exemption 4 of FOIA, which allows the government to withhold confidential commercial information including trade secrets and financial information. The DOJ argued that the information was confidential because the companies which with the government contracts have historically kept this information private. Overall, the court emphasized that solely the name of a supplier is not confidential information. The court explained that Exemption 4 only applies to information involving “the exchange of goods or services or the making of a profit” and held that the DOJ had not provided evidence that the supplier names falls under this category.