Transparency News, 2/9/21


 February 9, 2021
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state & local news stories

The Richmond City Council has approved an ordinance that allows the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department to use Richmond police’s new records management system, despite concerns from the public about how the relationship between the two departments could result in overpolicing and unequal enforcement among minorities. The ordinance, approved Monday, codifies a longstanding arrangement between the two agencies as the Richmond Police Department rolls out its new data collection and criminal records system in March. The agencies have shared a records system since 2012. Some of the concerns expressed, including by VCU’s student body president and groups like the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, stem from previous opposition to Richmond police’s acquisition of the new records system and the expansion of VCU police’s jurisdiction beyond campus, both of which were previously approved by the council and predate the civil unrest last summer.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

A bill from Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, that would require large employers like poultry plants to publicly report any COVID-19 outbreaks that have been linked by the Virginia Department of Health to the worksite cleared the Senate Friday night.  Crucially, however, the measure failed to garner enough support to go into effect immediately if it passes both houses of the legislature and is signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. Without an emergency enactment provision, the bill could not become effective until July 1.  Transparency concerns dogged the state’s response to the spring’s major poultry plant outbreaks, which occurred both on the Eastern Shore and in the Shenandoah Valley. Workers at the state’s poultry plants complained that they were not being notified of all cases at the facilities. One wing packer at a Tyson facility in Temperanceville on the Eastern Shore told the Mercury in late April that “word of mouth was that we have maybe 10 or more cases up there, but us employees were only told about two cases.” Many workers found out about cases via Facebook.  In fact, as a Freedom of Information Act request by the Mercury later showed, the Tyson facility had by that time reported roughly three dozen cases to VDH. 
Virginia Mercury

The Virginia General Assembly is continuing to do the people’s business in Richmond, but starting now, lawmakers — 11 of them seeking statewide office — are allowed to raise campaign money while they work. Lawmakers are prohibited by law from fundraising during regular sessions, but not during special sessions. The House and Senate adjourned from their regular session on Monday. So even though they’ll be hearing public testimony, getting lobbied and voting on bills in the coming weeks, they are no longer prohibited from fundraising. That doesn’t mean they should, or will. 
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Winchester City Council is expected to meet behind closed doors Tuesday to determine if it wants to continue outsourcing the position of city attorney. Winchester has been without an in-house city attorney since Feb. 8, 2019, when Anthony Williams resigned after 13 years to become Petersburg’s city attorney. In August 2019, at the suggestion of then-City Manager Eden Freeman, councilors decided not to hire another city attorney but to instead contract legal services through an independent law firm, Litten and Sipe of Harrisonburg. Freeman’s reasoning was that it could be cheaper to pay a firm on an hourly basis rather than paying the salary of a full-time city attorney. Tonight, City Council will convene in executive session and receive detailed billing information from Litten and Sipe to see if its 18-month foray into outsourcing has cost Winchester less, more or the same as it would have to hire an in-house, full-time city attorney.
The Winchester Star

King William County Administrator Bobbie Tassinari abruptly resigned Sunday after a county supervisor and the former Commissioner of the Revenue withheld information pertaining to the county’s tax reassessment, according to emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. On Friday, fourth district Supervisor Stewart Garber forwarded a Nov. 4 email correspondence he had with former Commissioner of the Revenue Sally Pearson to several key county figures, including the Board of Supervisors and county administrator, discussing errors within the assessment. Tassinari stated in her resignation email that it was irresponsible for the board to withhold information from her and her staff and as a result, had wasted her staff’s time and the situation could have been resolved sooner. “I am at a loss for words that back-channel communications were going on such as these and no one felt compelled to share with me rather instead to wait for the ‘gotcha,’” Tassinari stated. “I resign immediately.”
Tidewater Review
stories from around the country

Huge Ma, a 31-year-old software engineer for Airbnb, was stunned when he tried to make a coronavirus vaccine appointment for his mother in early January and saw that there were dozens of websites to check, each with its own sign-up protocol. The city and state appointment systems were completely distinct. “There has to be a better way,” he said he remembered thinking. So, he developed one. In less than two weeks, he launched TurboVax, a free website that compiles availability from the three main city and state New York vaccine systems and sends the information in real time to Twitter. It cost Mr. Ma less than $50 to build, yet it offers an easier way to spot appointments than the city and state’s official systems do.
The New York Times

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the pandemic-slayer image he has sought to project took another blow on Wednesday when a judge ordered the state Health Department to release records detailing the full coronavirus death toll in nursing homes. The court ruled in favor of the Empire Center for Public Policy, which sued after the state failed to fulfill the group's Freedom of Information Law request for that data, as well as dates of death and a count for each facility. The state’s “continued failure to provide petitioner a response, given the straightforward nature of the request... goes against FOIL’s broad standard of open and transparent government and is a violation of the statute,” wrote Justice Kimberly O’Connor. She gave the Health Department five business days to cough up the records.

A representative of the Michigan State Police confirmed for the first time last week that many of its top officials have used the text messaging app Signal on their state-issued cell phones, but he denied that use of the “end-to-end” encryption app in itself would violate the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. First Lt. Matt Williams told a Senate subcommittee that use of the app is neither officially banned nor officially sanctioned and the department is now reviewing whether its continued use is appropriate.
The Sault News