Transparency News, 3/10/21


 March 10, 2021
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state & local news stories

"After repeated denials, Virginia Beach police admitted last week some of their detectives used a controversial facial recognition program."
Gov. Ralph Northam's chief of staff said Tuesday that a state watchdog report that found wrongdoing at the Virginia Parole Board was biased and that the governor is talking to lawmakers about state funding for an independent investigation of controversies surrounding the board. Clark Mercer's comments came at a news conference the day after an investigator at the Office of the State Inspector General filed a whistleblower lawsuit against her boss, alleging the governor's staff intimidated the agency after critical findings related to the parole board, whose five members are appointed by the governor. Mercer said Tuesday that the public needs answers because of "a lot of unsubstantiated accusations being bandied about and a lot of politics being played." He said that while he meets regularly with Westfall, who reports to Mercer, that the governor's office called in OSIG's staff for a meeting last year after seeing the findings in the OSIG investigation relating to Martin. Brian Moran, the state's secretary of public safety and homeland security, was "highly critical" of the OSIG report at that time and found it biased, Mercer said, saying it omitted relevant code sections, relied on the wrong ones, and included biased information about Martin's record that wasn't germane to the process issues OSIG investigated.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

After repeated denials, Virginia Beach police admitted last week some of their detectives used a controversial facial recognition program during criminal investigations. In February 2020 and again in September, the Police Department told The Virginian-Pilot it had never used Clearview AI. It also denied using any other facial recognition technology recently, though the department briefly experimented with an in-house system at the Oceanfront in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But records obtained by The Pilot through the state’s open records law revealed 10 detectives signed up for Clearview accounts, starting in November 2019 . On Tuesday, the department said top brass ordered all officers to stop using the facial recognition program in November, meaning some detectives could have used it for up to a year. 
The Virginian-Pilot

The names Shannon Glover and Danny Meeks appeared together on ballots in November’s Portsmouth mayoral race. And for weeks now, it’s looked as if they may appear next to each other again — during City Council meetings. Glover is now in his third month as mayor. Meeks, who finished second in a field of six despite outspending Glover 6 to 1, has been a leading contender for city manager since a majority of the council voiced their support for him, even though he had not applied for the job, in a surprise Jan. 12 vote. The prospect of Meeks getting the job presents an unusual scenario: a man voters rejected for city leadership being installed nonetheless in perhaps the most powerful job in City Hall. And whoever becomes manager will choose the next police chief, a decision likely to be controversial no matter who makes it. Scott Burke has been interim chief since last year, when Chief Angela Greene was fired after controversial criminal charges her department filed against powerful Black leaders. In text messages obtained under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, a person identifying themselves as a police officer urged Councilman Bill Moody to “Bring Chief Greene back!!” and cited low staffing in the department. Moody responded, “I wish we could” and said the level of staffing was unacceptable.
The Virginian-Pilot

After Richlands Mayor Paul Crawford resigned his position last week he had second thoughts and notified council members two days later he wanted to rescind the resignation. But he found out he could not, and the resignation stood. “Well, I thought that town council would have to accept it (officially) before it was in place,” he said. “But the attorney and council members felt that whenever you tender that you can’t pull it back.” Wayne McClanahan, attorney for the town, said that is indeed the case. Town council issued a statement Tuesday explaining. “After mutual examination of the Virginia Code, it has come to the attention of both the Richlands Town Council and Mayor Paul Crawford, that his previously tendered resignation is irrevocable under Virginia Law,” the statement said. “As such, Mr. Crawford will no longer seek to withdraw his resignation.
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Isle of Wight County schools paid $20,000 in attorney’s fees to settle two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The first lawsuit was filed in late September and centered on a now-corrected mistake in communicating the start time for the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meetings. The board typically convenes the meeting at 5 p.m., announces its intent to meet in closed session, then reconvenes in public at 6 p.m. At the end of the public portion of the meeting, the board may vote in public on any matters from the private portion of the meeting. At some point, however, incorrect information was published that stated the meeting started at 6 p.m. According to the board, communicating that the public portion of the meeting starts at 6 p.m. was intended as a courtesy to keep people from arriving at the meeting at 5 p.m. only to sit and wait for an undetermined amount of time while the board members are meeting privately. In response to the lawsuit, Carr asked the board clerk to arrange for FOIA-related training from the Virginia School Board Association for the five elected board members, Superintendent Jim Thornton and Lynn Briggs, the school division’s spokeswoman and FOIA representative. But Lemon sued the board again before this training could be completed.
The Smithfield Times

The Front Royal Town Council began its lone work session of January with an hour closed meeting on topics dominated by Economic Development Authority-related business, both new and old. The rest of the 10-item work session agenda was highlighted by discussion of a number of high public interest topics. Those topics included: where Public Comments will be scheduled in a revamped single monthly meeting agenda. Council concurred with the staff recommendation forwarded by Town Manager Steven Hicks that Public Comments not be removed from the meeting agenda to an earlier, untelevised time, as had been proposed. Rather, they were listed as the 8th agenda item, essentially where they had been, following a moment of silence, pledge of allegiance, roll call, approval of previous meeting minutes, addition/deletions to agenda, recognitions and awards, agency presentations, and just prior to opening public hearings for proposed legislative actions.
Royal Examiner

University of Virginia Dean of Students Allen Groves rejected one plan for in-person Inter-Fraternity Council final hours and bid day in an email dated Jan. 29, according to documents made available to The Cavalier Daily after a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails — which were also independently obtained by individual students, who circulated the file on Twitter — led to additional criticism from some individuals over the University’s handling of Greek life recruitment. At the time the emails were sent — between Jan. 26 and 30 — the University was preparing to restart classes with a six-person gathering limit and strict social distancing and masking guidelines.  The plan that was rejected allowed up to eight individuals to gather off Grounds during recruitment rounds, though any additional details about the proposal were redacted. 
The Cavalier Daily
stories from around the country
"Judge Cahill made a landmark decision to make an exception to a Minnesota state rule that bars audio and video transmissions from courtrooms."

Hastily-erected 12-foot fences with barbed wire, razor wire and concrete barriers surround the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, Minn. It's there to provide a buffer between the District Court in which Derek Chauvin will be tried in the death of George Floyd, and demonstrators from at least 20 groups who have converged on the city. Court TV cable channel, a network made famous for its gavel-to-gavel coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, will have its cameras in the court. The prosecution objected but the request for cameras in the court was formally supported by Chauvin's attorneys, arguing live audio and video streams of the proceedings would ensure their client's right to public trial despite coronavirus-related restrictions on in-person attendance in the court. Judge Cahill, who dismissed the third-degree charge last fall, also made a landmark decision to make an exception to a Minnesota state rule that bars audio and video transmissions from courtrooms.

editorials & columns
"The board must have assumed that a return to normalcy — to business as usual — means the board’s usual business of violating state laws."
Every meeting of any public board must be announced to the public. This is so that citizens, who elect members and are governed by the decisions of those members, can participate in or at least monitor the debate and actions of those boards. In a democratic republic, in which the power of elected officials is conferred by the people, decisions should be made in full view of the public. Such transparency ensures accountability and deters public officials from acting in a manner inconsistent with the public will. The Norfolk School Board clearly thinks all of that is unnecessary. How else could they justify holding yet another meeting without announcing it beforehand — as the law requires them to do. On March 3, the board met face-to-face. It was a milestone since it was the first in-person meeting since the pandemic began. That should be cause for celebration: government functioning as before. Should be. Of course, the board failed to inform the public that it would be doing so. Members discussed meeting in person at their previous session, but never posted a notice about it — again, as the law requires. Board Chair Adale Martin, when asked by Pilot reporter Sara Gregory about it, said the board “didn’t in any way hide” the in-person meeting. But when asked how the public would know about it without notification, Martin said she hadn’t thought about it. They hadn’t thought about it. That makes sense, given the board’s repeated violations of the open meetings law. The board must have assumed that a return to normalcy — to business as usual — means the board’s usual business of violating state laws.
The Virginian-Pilot