Transparency News, 2/4/2022


February 4, 2022

There will not be an issue of the newsletter on Monday. We will return Tuesday, Feb. 8.

state & local news stories


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After asking parents to report “inherently divisive teaching practices,” Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office is refusing to make public the emails sent to a tip line launched last week. When Margaret Thornton heard about the tip line, she worried it would roll back the progress made in public education over the past few years. But to her dismay, the governor cited a public records exemption Wednesday saying the emails she sought were considered “working papers and correspondence of the Office of the Governor.” A similar request filed by several news organizations, including the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot, was refused on the same grounds. Youngkin’s administration did not respond to requests for comment. Megan Rhyne, executive director for Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said a government agency isn’t required to cite the exemption, but that it’s a choice to withhold the requested records.
The Virginian-Pilot

Do parents and teachers agree with Governor Glenn Youngkin, that there are “divisive practices” when it comes to teaching about race and history in schools that need to be “rooted out?” Or, do they have something else to say? Don't expect answers from the Governor's office. 13News Now Investigative Reporter Evan Watson submitted a records request for these messages to the tip line. It was denied on Wednesday.  This exemption cited is discretionary, meaning Youngkin’s office could release the emails, but it’s choosing not to do that. Instead, the office is opting to keep the messages secret while making evaluations on the teachings of race in Virginia schools.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently launched a tip line to report teachers and schools for “inherently divisive teaching practices.” Members of the media across the state  – including VPM News – and community members have submitted public records requests for copies of emails and voicemails sent to the tip line so far. But thus far, Youngkin’s office has fully withheld this information, claiming the records are exempt as the “working papers and correspondence” of the governor’s office. The Department of Education has cited the same exemption in withholding a document from VPM that appears to instruct DOE officials on how to enforce Youngkin’s executive orders signed on his first day in office. The Word document, called “EA Instructions,” was sent by Ali Ahmad, Youngkin’s director of policy, to Youngkin’s counsel, Richard Cullen, and his advisor, Matt Moran on Jan. 18. The email came three days after Youngkin signed executive orders seeking to root out “divisive content” from schools and allowing parents to opt-out of local mask mandates in K-12 schools.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said there is no requirement for the messages to be withheld and said they could be released with names and email addresses redacted. “I think the response was totally predictable, but I also think the response is tone-deaf. This is an issue of intense interest for the public,” she told InsideNoVa. “The office is making a choice to keep this information from the public, creating even more questions about what the purpose of this tip line is or what the governor plans to do with the information collected.”
Inside NoVa

“Every governor has overused the working papers exemption,”said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and an occasional Mercury contributor. Former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam cited the code section to shield his daily calendar in the midst of a key permit vote on Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline. His predecessor, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, claimed the code section shielded the list of felons included in his sweeping rights restoration order — some of whom regained political rights despite not completing their sentences. More unusual — and concerning, Rhyne said — were FOIA denials from the Virginia Department of Education. A reporter for the public radio station VPM News submitted a records request to the agency last month related to Youngkin’s executive orders.
Virginia Mercury

The city of Charlottesville has spent thousands of dollars on infrastructure to support a hybrid in-person and online public meeting model, but it has yet to actually host a hybrid meeting. Receipts obtained by The Daily Progress indicate that the city spent almost $120,000 on hybrid meeting infrastructure in 2021. The purchases were mostly paid with federal CARES Act funding, but have not been used much as the city remains in completely virtual meetings. All city government meetings have been conducted virtually over Zoom since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. And according to city councilors and staff, it’s not clear when or if there will be hybrid meetings, a combination of virtual and in-person, in the near future. “When the emergency order is lifted or expires, most of our commissions and boards would return to being in-person, but as to which would remain hybrid, if any, is unfortunately not a hashed out detail at this time,” Marshall said. The school board has held several socially distanced in-person and hybrid meetings throughout the year, but Mayor Lloyd Snook said city council wasn’t ready to participate.
The Daily Progress

Pound’s former town attorney from a year ago is asking to dismiss two defendants from a March 2021, $1.07 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against three council members and the town. Tim McAfee, who was dismissed as town attorney in March, sued the town and then-council members Clifton Cauthorne, Marley Green and Susan Downs-Freeman for what he called breach of contract and violation of his First Amendment rights. The suit, starting in Wise County Circuit Court, was transferred to U.S. District Court in September. Although not named in McAfee’s suit, Mayor Stacey Carson was dismissed as a defendant after Federal Judge James Jones found in October that she did not violate McAfee’s First Amendment rights by voting in March to appoint Downs-Freeman as an interim council member.
Times News

For years, Virginia school districts have been able to hide behind Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law which allows school districts, and other entities, to charge you exorbitant fees before releasing public information you might be seeking. The financial hurdles can be so large -- many people can’t jump over. As a result, the sky-high fees prevent many FOIAs from ever being fulfilled. “I know they are being secretive,” said Michelle Mege, a Loudoun County parent. Mege and other parents are concerned the Loudoun County school district isn’t being honest to parents and students about school safety, especially after Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) refused to release the results of an investigation into two sexual assaults that happened in two different schools.

A member of Virginia’s Mattaponi tribe who has protested tribal government was convicted Thursday of violating a court-issued  protective order by giving the tribal chief the finger in December. Steven “Wahoo” Custalow was sentenced to five days in jail and fined $200 plus court costs by King William County General District Court Judge Stephen A. Hudgins on the single misdemeanor count, said his attorney, Tony Troy. Troy, a former Virginia attorney general who is representing Steven Custalow pro bono, immediately appealed the case to King William County Circuit Court. The sentence is stayed pending a hearing on the appeal tentatively set for Feb. 16. According to Chief Mark Custalow’s affidavit in a complaint on which the charge is based, Steven Custalow was driving his pickup truck around the Mattaponi reservation about 35 miles northeast of Richmond on Dec. 11 and raised his middle finger toward the building where the chief and tribal council were meeting as his truck passed by — a distance of approximately 150 feet. Steven Custalow was arrested that night by a King William County deputy sheriff and spent two nights in a regional jail in Saluda before being granted a bond hearing.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that obscene gestures are free speech protected by the First Amendment. Thursday’s case, however, was restricted to whether the alleged gesture violated a protective order the chief was granted after Mattaponi dissidents demonstrated in support of open elections outside his home last fall and left a petition calling for the elections outside. 
Virginia Mercury

The City of Bristol, Virginia says the information on the landfill sought by Bristol, Tennessee officials is too much to gather in the time frame expected. “The City of Bristol, Virginia has outside counsel providing legal guidance to the City as it relates tot he FOIA request. The FOIA request is voluminous and overly broad. Fulfilling this FOIA request will require more time than provided for in the Code of Virginia. The City’s outside counsel is attempting to reach a resolution with Bristol, Tennessee’s outside counsel as it relates to the timing of the City’s response and the specifics of Bristol, Tennessee’s request.”

stories of national interest

The Arkansas Supreme Court [yesterday] reversed and dismissed a ruling that blogger Russ Racop was entitled to photographs of all state troopers under the Freedom of Information Act. The Supreme Court sided with the State Police, which argued that it would effectively identify undercover officers — who are specifically protected by law — by releasing photographs of all other troopers. Clearly, comparing information already available to the public, from sources like the Arkansas Transparency website—which provides names, service dates, salaries, race, gender, and other identifying information of State employees, including state troopers—with a list of non-undercover troopers would reveal the identities of the undercover officers. This is because knowing who is not undercover would reveal that the officers whose photographs were not released are undercover. Accordingly, the trial court erred in ordering disclosure under FOIA, and the order is therefore reversed and the case dismissed.
Arkansas Times