Transparency News, 3/10/2023


March 10, 2023

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state & local news stories


VCOG's annual conference
FOI Day -- March 16
Info and registration here

A former Asian professor at Virginia Military Institute who claimed he was denied tenure based solely on his appearance has settled his lawsuit against the state school. Lunpeng Ma — who said VMI’s decision cost him his job and work visa, forcing him to relocate to his native China — filed a federal racial discrimination lawsuit in 2021. A judge dismissed the lawsuit Feb. 22 pursuant to a settlement that kept the terms confidential. However, the state of Virginia paid $124,370 to Ma through two law firms that represented him, according to records provided to The Roanoke Times Thursday in response to a request under the state Freedom of Information Act.
The Roanoke Times

The Virginia State Police has launched an investigation concerning a September 2020 Pittsylvania County Planning Commission video that has a portion of it missing. The missing portion involves a special use permit application for a 1,481-acre solar farm off Berry Hill Road, which was the subject of an open house for residents last week. Gretna resident Ken Moss said that the missing portion of the video contained a discussion about setbacks, buffers and the height of the panels. Moss said that the minutes from the Planning Commission sent to the Board of Zoning Appeals did not reflect what was in the Sept. 1 meeting. County officials have disputed that claim. An audio recording of the entire meeting was acquired by the Star-Tribune from a former reporter who attended the Sept. 1, 2020 Planning Commission meeting and included the portion missing from the video.  Upon obtaining the audio recording of the Sept. 1 meeting, the newspaper shared it with the county. “The county has completed its review of the Chatham Star-Tribune’s audio recording of the Sept. 1, 2020 Planning Commission meeting and has confirmed there is a portion of this meeting that is missing from the recorded video starting at the 56:56 minute mark.  The missing footage was unintentional and the result of the manual “stitching” process that was required using the available technology at the time to consolidate multiple 15-minute video files into a single, composite file that’s suitable for online viewing.”
Chatham Star-Tribune

Spotsylvania County school administration’s decision to station a private armed guard in the School Board office every weekday has resulted in security costs tripling compared to last year. The school division paid $23,434 to Sonny, Inc. — a private firm contracted in October 2022 to provide security at School Board meetings and in the School Board office — between December 2022 and February 2023, according to the weekly bill list posted on the division’s website. Of that, $10,654 was for “private security for School Board” and $12,780 was for “private security — SBO reception.” The total amount paid for private security over three months is more than one-third of what division staff have estimated the annual cost to be, according to budget information for fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1.
The Free Lance-Star

The city of Waynesboro is continuing to assess stolen city data that was posted online, Waynesboro City Manager Mike Hamp said Wednesday. The theft was first discovered in January, but Hamp said the city is still trying to get a complete accounting of what city data was taken. “We are trying to understand what they have,” he said. Social media has identified the group stealing the Waynesboro data as BianLian, a group that emerged as a ransomware group in late 2021.
The News Virginian

A proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would allow Smithfield’s Town Council to forego holding a public hearing on proffer changes is on hold.  The council, which lacked three of its seven members at its March 7 meeting, voted 4-0 to table the proposal and send it back to the town’s Planning Commission for reconsideration. Currently, if developers of an approved project want a post-approval change to their proffer agreements with the town, they have to go through the rezoning process again, which entails a mandatory public hearing. The proposed amendment would allow the council to waive the hearing and rezoning application requirements at the developer’s request if the change does not affect the development’s “use or density.” 
The Smithfield Times

Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney Bethany Harrison said she still did not believe school officials in Colonial Heights violated Virginia’s mandatory reporter law with regard to how they handled "inappropriate behavior" complaints against the former Colonial Heights High school softball coach, after reviewing new information sent to her by a state lawmaker. Del. Mike Cherry (R - 66) had asked the Virginia State Police to initiate an investigation into accusations that crimes were covered up at Colonial Heights High School. Harrison told Cherry in an email that she reviewed the material he sent her, and she said "these emails do not change my evaluation of the case regarding the question: are there any state crimes to pursue or prosecute against Faries or the school administrators." She added that she could not view some redacted emails related to the case because "redactions labeled privileged material based upon the attorney-client relationship are protected and I will not be able to obtain them."

Keeping records of the births, deaths, marriages and divorces that occur in Virginia may seem like dull work. Don’t tell that to Janet M. Rainey. Retired as of Jan. 31, the 66-year-old spent her life in what she describes as an “intriguing field,” rising to lead the records office of the Virginia Department of Health for 18 years. Today, Ms. Rainey looks back at a 47-year career that emphasized accuracy and attention to detail. She participated in the technological revolution that computerized the records collection and had a ringside seat on societal changes, ranging from racial integration to gay marriage. VDH credits her with helping the Office of Vital Records evolve from a paper-based operation to a computer-driven information center that takes in and safely makes records accessible electronically at local health department offices and through the Department of Motor Vehicles offices.
Richmond Free Press