Transparency News 2/5/19



February 5, 2019


Follow the bills that VCOG follows on our annual legislative bill chart.


state & local news stories




The Senate passed SB1262 on strangely partisan lines. Only three Democrats voted with the majority; only one Republican voted with the Democratic minority. The House subcommittee that will likely get the bill next has been hostile to the bill, which requires localities and school districts of a certain size to post online their checkbook/credit card purchase data every three months. Consider contacting the subcommittee members to voice your support on what should be a good government, non partisan issue.
House Counties, Cities & Towns Subcommittee #1

The Senate unanimously passed SB1703, which would require the Library of Virginia to release a governor's records within a year of receiving them.

The Warren County Board of Supervisors recently approved a slew of resolutions that support and oppose House and Senate bills that are before the General Assembly. Bills the county opposes include: Senate Bill 1554: This bill would result in a civil penalty of officers or public officials that intentionally alter or destroy requested public records under the Freedom of Information Act. If a court finds that a public official destroyed or altered records prior to the expiration of the applicable record retention period, there would be a civil penalty of up to $100 per record that was destroyed. The bill would also allow a $500 civil penalty to be imposed upon a public official who voted to certify a closed meeting and was not acting in accordance with Freedom of Information Act requirements. County Attorney Dan Whitten states in a supervisors’ agenda item that the concern is that every deleted text, email or social media post would be the subject of a separate penalty of $100. He added that the bill “would penalize members of a public body for inadvertent and unintentional discussions about subjects such as a person’s health.”
The Northern Virginia Daily
NOTE: The bill was amended to tie the deletion to an intent to avoid a FOIA request. The bill passed the Senate yesterday on a 34-6 vote. VCOG supports the bill.

In early October, Pittsylvania County’s administrator disclosed to two board members and the county attorney that his family’s financial relationship with a board member-owned company “has potentially infiltrated” his job, show documents obtained by the Danville Register & Bee. That email, by Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman, came about two weeks before Blair Homes — a local residential construction company co-owned by supervisor Ben Farmer and his wife — filed the first of two mechanic’s liens against Smitherman and his wife. The couple had contracted Blair Homes to build their new home in Penhook.
Register & Bee


stories of national interest

A senior aide to a former mayor of Atlanta collapses on a courtroom floor after hearing that she is headed to prison. F.B.I. agents in Los Angeles haul away computers and documents during a raid of a veteran councilman’s office. News cameras trail the most powerful alderman in Chicago as he walks to court to face a charge of attempted extortion. Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia accuse a powerful labor boss of keeping a key city councilman on his union’s payroll. Four of America’s largest cities are under the dark clouds of major federal corruption investigations. Residents, politicians and power brokers in all of them are holding their breath, waiting for signs of how deeply their civic cultures will be shaken.
The New York Times

The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday voted to ban the use of nondisclosure agreements by the state Senate. This represents a clear policy break with the Massachusetts House, which uses the agreements and has explicitly rejected attempts to limit their use. Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, who proposed the amendment, said banning nondisclosure agreements "sends a clear message to our communities that we are not nor will we be in the business of silencing victims or covering ups misdeeds under any circumstance using public funds."

An FBI raid that led to the arrest of a National Security Agency contractor for allegedly hoarding classified documents at his home did not turn up evidence that the computer expert opened the digital files he’s accused of stealing, federal prosecutors have acknowledged. Defense attorneys have argued that the concession will undercut the government’s case against Harold Martin Jr., but it’s unclear how much of a hurdle it creates for the prosecution at Martin’s trial, set to open in Baltimore in June. Martin’s defense has pressed for identical copies — so-called “mirror images” — of the slew of computer drives and digital devices seized from his home in 2016. Such access is routine in most cases involving digital evidence. However, the prosecution has refused in Martin’s case, citing the massive volume and extreme sensitivity of data he allegedly took from the NSA and other government agencies.




"Residents, politicians and power brokers in all of them are holding their breath, waiting for signs of how deeply their civic cultures will be shaken."


editorials & columns



"While localities across Virginia should be encouraged to expand use of body cameras, the state also needs to provide funds to cover the extra work it takes to make good use of the technology."

THERE’S LITTLE serious disagreement that it’s good policy to equip police officers with body cameras.  But, as with many innovations, things aren’t as simple as they might seem. Buying the cameras and training officers to use them is just the beginning. The cameras are great tools, but they come with complications and expense.  While localities across Virginia should be encouraged to expand use of body cameras, the state also needs to provide funds to cover the extra work it takes to make good use of the technology. Despite what we see on TV police procedurals, footage from a police body camera doesn’t answer everyone’s questions instantaneously any more than discovering a trace of DNA solves a crime in minutes.  Somebody has to review the tape produced by police body cameras to see if it yields useful evidence. And if a bit of tape might be introduced as evidence, somebody has to redact anything — confidential information, children, nudity — that should not be made public.  All that takes time and expertise. 
The Virginian-Pilot

One of the biggest contrasts in public access to state and local governments in Iowa came into focus last week, and Iowans should be concerned by what occurred. A bit of context: Iowans have long had the right to sit in on almost every meeting of state government policy-making and governing boards and on meetings of their local school board, city council and county board of supervisors. That law requires a board or council to post the agenda for its meeting at least 24 hours before the meeting. This notice requirement exists to give the public time to offer their opinions on an issue and to arrange to attend the meeting. But Iowans were reminded last week the public meetings law does not apply to the Legislature. When lawmakers wrote the statute, they chose not to have it apply to themselves. Instead, the Legislature is governed by rules written by each chamber’s majority party every two years. That’s how last week’s events came to light. The Republican majority in the Iowa Senate revised that chamber’s rules and removed the requirement that subcommittee meetings be announced at least 24 hours in advance and that the public be allowed to speak then. (The House does not have similar guarantees in its rules.)
Randy Evans, Iowa Freedom of Information Council