Transparency News 3/10/14

Monday, March 10, 2014
State and Local Stories


The York County Board of Supervisors has postponed the annual retreat that had been scheduled for Saturday. The decision came after the Daily Press reported Friday that the meeting had not been publicly announced. "Even though under the Code of Virginia the board may adjourn to a specific date without further notice or advertisement, the board wants to be certain that there is no question that all meetings are duly called and that the public is given appropriate notice," the county said in a statement Friday afternoon. At the end of the board's regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night, county officials said, the board adjourned until Saturday morning, which is allowed under state law. But the motion was made after a closed session when the public was dismissed and recording devices turned off.
Daily Press

Accomack County Superintendent W. Bruce Benson is a career educator and says he feels strongly about the public’s right to know how public money is spent. “I believe public entities need to be as transparent as they can,” Benson said. “I believe all requests for information should be treated in the same manner,” he said, whether it is a formal Freedom of Information Act request by the media or a request by a taxpayer. “It is information that should be made available to the public, and we have a responsibility to do that.” However, some requests come with a price tag — and that comes with a question: Should the public have to pay for access to public records? And if so, how much? Accomack County Public Schools, along with municipalities from Delaware to Virginia, were asked for public information as part of a Delmarva Media Group initiative for Sunshine Week, “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” The request by the Delmarva Media Group sought overtime totals for employees in 2013. The school board estimated the cost to be between $348.88 and $697.76 to fill the request.
Delmarva Now

Northampton County fulfilled the Freedom of Information Act request made by The Daily Times promptly, mailing its response one day after the request was made, and at no cost. The sheriff’s office was sent a separate request that was fulfilled within the statutory five days, again at no cost. County Administrator Katie Nunez says the county does not charge a fee for “simple, straightforward requests that are easily satisfied without significant staff time or resources.” If at least an hour of staff time is needed to fulfill the request, a fee is generally assessed based on the hourly rate of the employee who fulfills the request, plus the cost of copies, which could vary depending on whether the item being copied is in color or is a map. This appears to be an informal rule-of-thumb, as the policy as posted on the website simply notifies individuals they may be charged for records requests.
Delmarva Now

The judge overseeing the John Moses Ragin capital murder trial has ruled that jurors in the case will remain anonymous — at least to the public — throughout the course of the five-week trial. Newport News Circuit Court Judge Timothy S. Fisher ordered on Feb. 20 that prosecutors and defense lawyers "shall refer to jurors in open court during the trial process by number only, not by name." "For good cause shown and by agreement of all parties … all juror personal information effective this date shall be disseminated only to the Circuit Court staff as necessary and to counsel for the parties and the defendant," the order reads. Fisher's Feb. 20 order, however, does not specify the "good cause" for the restrictions. Moreover, the Ragin case file does not contain any motions from either prosecutors or Ragin's defense lawyers asking for the anonymous jury, with Fisher having the discretion to make the ruling on his own. Neither side objected to the ruling, either.
Daily Press

The 26 Union soldiers were posed for the camera somewhere near Brandy Station, Va., in late 1863 or early 1864. The front rank stood at parade rest, hands clasped around muskets. The rear ranks stood so their faces could be seen. They were serious young men approaching the final, bloody months of the Civil War. The Library of Congress, which owns the rare tintype, had described it as an “unidentified company of soldiers” — anonymous Yankees whose stories and fates seemed forgotten. But last month, a New York high school teacher spotted the photo on a Civil War Facebook page and recognized the image. Now the library, which has a digital version on its Web site, has names and stories to go with the faces.
Washington Post

National Stories

Facing legal action, the State Department on Friday responded to a request for documents about the qualifications of President Obama's ambassadorial nominees. Last summer, the American Foreign Service Association filed a Freedom of Information Act request for “Certificates of Demonstrated Competence” that the State Department fills out and submits to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before nomination hearings.
Washington Examiner

Federal investigators concluded there was sufficient evidence to bring charges against public officials during their years-long abuse-of-power investigation targeting Maricopa County law-enforcement agencies, according to heavily redacted records obtained by The Arizona Republic. The records indicate that FBI agents found probable cause to recommend felony counts of obstructing criminal investigations of prosecutions, theft by threats, tampering with witnesses, perjury and theft by extortion. Ultimately, federal prosecutors in August 2012 closed the three-year FBI criminal investigation and grand-jury probe into Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and their top deputies, saying there would be no indictments due to a lack of evidence or an insurmountable burden of proof. Days later, The Republic submitted requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act, asking for all investigative records related to the probe. The newspaper later amended the scope of its request to seek prosecutorial reports after a federal official said it would take years for the U.S. Department of Justice to comply with the initial request.


On Friday, we started a conversation (at least as far as Twitter lets you have one) with the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government regarding e-mail retention.  This post expands upon what the state is currently doing and why it should be doing something else.Under the Virginia Public Records Act, FOIA’s lesser known but important partner in government records, the Library of Virginia has archival and records management regulatory authority.  See Va. Code § 42.1-79 & 42.1-82.  Although individual agencies often have their own needs and can have their own retention schedules, agencies are not independent, and the Library is not a mere advisor. The Library’s approach to electronic records is to treat them like paper records, retained for different periods depending on their content. The state’s current e-mail retention system is a fairy tale.  It is this way because, in pursuant of an idealistic approach to electronic records, the state has ignored the real world.  In the real world, there is a decisive way that electronic records are different than paper records:  the barriers to creating electronic records are essentially zero, and, as a direct result, there are exponentially more electronic records than there ever were paper records.
Open Virginia Law

Virginia's ethics laws have long been predicated on the notion that transparency, rather than any cap on money or gifts, is sufficient and proper. But state lawmakers, at least in the House of Delegates,aren't quite willing to let go of taxpayer subsidies that help fund their travel to conferencesput on by special-interest groups that don't share an affinity for disclosure. SB 500, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Donald McEachin, would've banned lawmakers from using tax dollars for this sort of self-enrichment.

The suicide of Sen. Creigh Deeds' son, Gus, stirred legislators this winter to piece together mental health reforms intended to avert similar tragedies. But they have done so without the benefit of a report from the state inspector general assessing why the young man did not receive the psychiatric treatment his father sought. The report remains under wraps, but the reason for its delay became public, if not clear, with the March 1 resignation of Douglas Bevelacqua, the chief investigator for behavioral health issues. What's known about that report thus far comes from Bevelacqua. In his letter of resignation, he identifies disagreements with other state officials over the deletion of two specific items. One is a dispute over whether to include a quote from Deeds stating that the behavioral health system had failed his son. Second is an assertion by Bevelacqua that speedier implementation of recommendations he made in a 2012 report "most likely would have produced a different outcome" for the Deeds family. On the first point, there is no reason to suppress an opinion Deeds has already made public. While there may be debate on how and why the system failed, there can be no dispute that it did.
The second issue is more complex.
Roanoke Times

Open-government advocates have good reason to be paranoid. They're being shut out of public hearings that have been scheduled in the same time slot on Monday. Obviously, they can't be in two places at once. Arguably the most important legislation in years that adversely affects open government — a measure containing the bitter fruits of a task force on balancing privacy and public disclosure interests — will receive two public hearings at the legislature. Two hearings at the same time.
Hartford Courant