Transparency News 3/1/13

Friday, March 1, 2013

State and Local Stories

Daily Press: The Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday sided with the Daily Press in a challenge to a judge's order sealing trial exhibits in a Newport News murder case — ruling that the order was unconstitutional. Circuit Judge H. Vincent Conway Jr. two years ago denied the newspaper the right to look at a court file in a murder case — including autopsy photographs of the 17-month old child — even though the exhibits had been used at the mother's public trial two months earlier. Conway, who sealed the file after the Daily Press asked to see it, later modified his order and granted access to most of the file. But he kept the seal on the photographs and an autopsy report, saying the seal would remain in place until later court proceedings had been concluded.

Times-Dispatch: Advocates for lower Richmond water and sewer charges have thus far been stonewalled by the city administration in attempts to obtain a consultant’s study that will be central to the utility rates the mayor will propose this month as part of the city budget. The city’s Public Utilities Department has denied a Freedom of Information Act request from Charles Pool, an Oregon Hill resident who is among a chorus of city utility customers calling for lower base charges for water and wastewater, for the report by Raftelis Financial Consultants. Pool originally requested the information the city provided to Raftelis for the rate study but changed tack after the utilities told him the cost for preparing the report would be $287.17. The cost of preparing the request would have included five hours of work, at $46.31 per hour, by a utilities comptroller and two hours by a systems analyst at $27.81 per hour. Daunted by the sticker price of his public records request, Pool asked for a copy of the report or a draft and was sent a letter signed by Mayor Dwight C. Jones. The letter, dated Jan. 8, nearly eight months after the city put out a request for proposals for the study, directed the city utilities department to “perform a cost of services study” and declared that “this study and all documents and correspondence associated with its creation shall be deemed confidential working papers of the mayor, intended for the personal and deliberative use of my staff and me.”

Daily Press: The Hampton City Council will no longer televise its twice-monthly public comment period, a decision that comes after one of its former members, Tom Gear, was detained by police for breaking the council's public comment rules. Mayor Molly Joseph Ward announced the decision to black out the public comment period during the Wednesday evening council meeting. No public vote was taken on the matter, and no public hearings were held to collect residents' input.

Cavalier Daily: UVA Second-year Law student Ronald Fisher submitted a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request Feb. 25 for Honor Committee records concerning private funding for the Committee’s Restore the Ideal Act campaign. The FOIA request asks for email correspondences between Honor Committee members and private individuals who have funded the campaign. Also requested are an itemized list of funds the Committee has used and the amount of funds still remaining. The request comes after Honor Chair Stephen Nash, a fourth-year College student, stated publicly that the Committee is using private funds to support its campaign. “The purpose [of the request] is to answer a very simple question,” Fisher said, “Honor has stated [the reforms] are being funded … we absolutely should know where these funds are coming from.”

Virginian-Pilot: Internal emails from last month's interstate pothole mess show a Virginia Department of Transportation manager astonished at how bad things had become and the agency's chief engineer rushing to find better patches for the disintegrating roads. VDOT released 70 pages of internal emails Thursday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Virginian-Pilot: Automated phone calls paid for by Councilman Danny Meeks are urging citizens to "fight against special interests" by contacting City Council members and asking them to hire the most qualified candidates for city manager and city attorney. Meeks has criticized council members for postponing, at least temporarily, a vote to permanently hire interim City Manager John Rowe and interim City Attorney George Willson, though the calls do not mention either by name.

Progress-Index: Hopewell Ward 6 Councilor Brenda Pelham is considering suing the city because of council's decision to not cover $15,000 in legal expenses incurred while fighting conflict of interest charges. Pelham was indicted by a grand jury in May 2011 on 13 misdemeanor charges of failure to disclose conflicts of interest related to her job as a city schools employee. The 13 separate incidences were alleged to have occurred between June 2006 and July 2010. Virginia law requires that all members of state or local governments not participate in transactions that benefit personal interest, and that they may not knowingly fail to disclose potential conflicts of interest in voting.

Register & Bee: Education continues to be a primary concern — and frustration — for Danville City Council members as they head into their budget season, it was revealed Wednesday night during a retreat to set priorities for the 2014 budget. Councilman Lee Vogler said he would like to see an itemized school budget each year, with more transparency between the two elected bodies. He said a detailed discussion on what local taxpayer funds are being spent on would give council an opportunity to question spending and, if questions were not answered, provide an option to cut funding.