Transparency News 3/12/18

March 12, 2018
state & local news stories
It's Sunshine Week!! Check out VCOG's lineup of free events.
The commonwealth licenses more than a million tradesmen, professionals and businesses, though the exact number is difficult to tally since dozens of separate agencies and boards are charged with oversight. In observation of Sunshine Week, the annual national event highlighting the public’s right to know about information gathered by the government on its behalf, The Roanoke Times tested the transparency of some of these agencies in sharing information about the people they regulate with the people they are charged to protect. We approached this as if we were ordinary citizens checking the qualifications and licenses of people with whom we would seek to do business and to determine if we could readily discover if they had faced disciplinary action.
The Roanoke Times

Discipline is on the decline in local schools, according to data acquired by the Bristol Herald Courier through the Freedom of Information Act. But when discipline does occur, black and special-education students are disproportionately impacted. Bristol Virginia Public Schools provided the Herald Courier with data on every incident that led to an out-of-school suspension during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, through late February. Incidents were not included for groups of students smaller than 10 to protect their identities. For instance, if a school had only three students of a certain race, incidents related to those students were not included. Bristol Tennessee City Schools shared aggregate statistics — the total number of students of a particular race, gender, or disability that were disciplined in each school during a particular year. Like BVPS, it excluded details for small pools of students. BTCS did not share ratios for out-of-school suspensions specifically, but for all disciplinary action.
Bristol Herald Courier

Friends of the Library have held for nearly a year that the Smyth County Board of Supervisors and County Administrator Michael Carter violated the commonwealth’s sunshine law when they discussed dissolving the Smyth-Bland Regional Library behind closed doors. Now, the Virginia Supreme Court will weigh in. A three-judge writ panel heard arguments by Marion attorney Paul Morrison II last month. On March 2, the panel agreed for the court to hear the appeal. Morrison is representing Beverly Cole, individually, and as president on behalf of the non-profit Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library. On Monday, Morrison summarized the case, saying, “We believe that members of the Smyth County Board of Supervisors, and specifically, Supervisor Rick Blevins, made illegal motions to hold closed door meetings which excluded the public, and that during those illegally convened meetings, the Board discussed dissolving the Smyth-Bland Regional Library.  We will continue to pursue this appeal in an effort to ensure that the important decisions made by the Board are open and transparent for all citizens.” On May 26, Judge Sage B. Johnson issued a ruling finding in favor of Carter and the supervisors.
Southwest Virginia Today

This weekend, 140 lawmakers returned home to their regular lives after 60 days of committee meetings, constitution lobby days, debate and floor sessions. Unlike some states, Virginia relies on part-time citizen legislators who take a month or two out of their lives to serve. Most are lawyers, business owners, or retired or near-retired, so they have the time, the flexibility at work and the financial means to serve. Other, less-senior members have a harder time. The new younger freshman delegates are earlier in their careers, some with young families and working spouses, which makes child care difficult. They need, and are usually granted, flexibility at their regular jobs and have plenty of help from co-workers to pick up the slack while they’re gone. But that can mean quite the workload when they get back from the stressful months in Richmond, with days that begin as early as 7 a.m. and can go late into the night. A vacation it is not. Here’s a look at five Hampton Roads legislators and how they balance their professional career and lawmaking.
The Virginian-Pilot
national stories of interest
In January, the Department of Defense ordered the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) not to publish certain data on areas of Afghanistan that were held by insurgents. "This development is troubling for a number of reasons, not least of which is that this is the first time SIGAR has been specifically instructed not to release information marked 'unclassified' to the American taxpayer," the SIGAR said in its January 2018 report to Congress.  But the Department of Defense soon reversed course, saying it was an error to withhold that information. Last week, the SIGAR published an addendum to its January report that provided the previously suppressed data. In addition, a detailed control map and the underlying data for each of Afghanistan's 407 districts were declassified and published. See Addendum to SIGAR's January 2018 Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, February 26, 2018.
Secrecy News

President Trump has pardoned a former Navy sailor who pleaded guilty to illegally retaining photographs he had taken of classified areas inside a nuclear submarine. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the pardon for Kristian Saucier on Friday. According to court documents, he used his personal cellphone to take six photos of classified areas, instruments and equipment in the sub — including the nuclear reactor — in 2009. After being interviewed by the FBI in 2012, Saucier destroyed a computer, camera and memory card. Investigators later found pieces of a laptop computer stashed in the woods on a property owned by a relative of Saucier's.
PopUplogoMarch 16, 2018
Virginia Credit Union House
editorials & columns
quote_3.jpg"I’m sure we all believe ours is the worst because we all have a baseline of what we expect of our government officials and employees."
When I get together with my counterparts in other states — such as the Florida First Amendment Foundation, Open Oregon, the New England First Amendment Coalition, or the Ohio Coalition for Open Government — I often imagine us as residents of a nursing home sharing our ailments. We nod and tsk-tsk as we exchange tales of the latest abuse of our open government laws. There’s a bit of one-upmanship going on here. Just as it can be a competition as to who has the worst ailment, access advocates relate horror stories with an expectation that everyone else will agree that his or her state must be the absolute worst: Our law has the most exemptions; our state has the most problems; or, our violations are the most egregious. I’m sure we all believe ours is the worst because we all have a baseline of what we expect of our government officials and employees. We become acclimated to what our law or our public servants do right so that when they do wrong, it seems all the more unacceptable.
Megan Rhyne, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Transparency means answers and explanations for the conduct of police officers, the rulings of judges and the expenditures of elected officials. It applies to legislators from the county stormwater commissioner all the way up to the White House. Anyone who spends your tax dollars, or who determines laws – from the hot-button issues kicked around on cable news shows to the smaller issues that affect quality of life in your hometown -- zoning regulations, public school budgets and many more. These decisions need to be made in a public forum, not behind closed doors. Citizens must have full access to the work being done in their name. This should be self-evident, and yet there will always be those in positions of power and influence who will look for ways to work in privacy – in secrecy – while implicitly whispering to the public, “Trust me.” Meaning no disrespect to any man or woman who holds any public office, but we trust what we can see.
Daily Press

Hearing and reading these stories should make not only any journalist but also any citizen of this country thankful to live in a place where open government and a free press are not only concepts but law, for these are planks fundamental to a democratic republic. Remove them and the entire platform splinters. Critical to comprehending the Founders’ point in making free expression and a free press part of the very fabric of the Constitution is recognizing that they understood liberty was never and could never be won just once, but rather it would be something for which Americans would have to fight continually. Human proclivities dictate that every generation will have those who seek to skirt the boundaries of law and ethics, people in positions of prestige and authority who seek to bend to their will society’s ostensible lessers. Nixon in his day was not the first but only the latest.
Lee Woverton, Daily Press

Polling by the Pew Research Center and Gallup put confidence in government at near-record lows. This is not the work of one president or party, but rather an erosion of trust extending over decades. The federal government is neither accessible nor accountable. Both would be improved through greater transparency by those tasked with conducting the people’s business, though efforts to do so come in fits and starts. Things are little better on the state level, where Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act is riddled with exemptions and exploited by officials who use those loopholes to protect information and hide their work from public view. And in city halls and county buildings, even those officials who are closest to votes — those we see at church or the supermarket, the people we can speak to directly — routinely act without regard to their obligations under the law. Some are worse than others, of course, but all could do better.  There is a simple, straightforward principle that Sunshine Week hopes to impart, and it is this: Open government is good government.
The Virginian-Pilot

OUR COUNTRY was founded on the assumption that citizens would be active participants in our government — that we would lead our leaders. Voting is only step one. And while there are many ways to be engaged, attending public meetings is an efficient way to let your representatives know their decisions matter. Show. Up.Each year during Sunshine Week, open government advocates shine the light on ways to be more active citizens, with the hopes that residents will continue throughout the year. We all know that tracking public officials can be a challenge, and messages to them can be disregarded. But a voter’s presence can’t be ignored. So how to make this work? A few minutes of research might help: Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act explains how all of this should work.
Shelley Kimball, The Virginian-Pilot

According to the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, the state pays only 47 percent while the students kick in 53 percent. It’s no wonder that some 1 million Virginians owe more than $30 billion in student loan debt. This session’s state Senate Finance Committee did not seem to be on the side of the students and their tuition-paying parents in this matter. Recently, a bill passed by the House of Delegates would have mandated the opportunity for public input whenever there’s a proposed tuition increase(which seemingly is every year). The bill went to the Senate, where it was killed by the Senate Finance Committee on a 7–6 vote. Representatives from the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary opposed the bill.
The Free Lance-Star

In 2018, I brought forward SB 824. It simply required that the governing board of a Virginia public college allow public comment on a tuition increase before implementing the increase. After conversations with university representatives, the bill was modified to be written in the most non-demanding way: “the governing board of each public institution of higher education shall permit public comment on the proposed increase at a meeting.” The bill had obvious merit and several supporting speakers in the Senate Education Committee, which voted 12-3 in its favor. But something funny happened along the way to legislative success. While it had zero fiscal impact, SB 824 was nevertheless “rereferred” to the Senate Finance Committee, where bills opposed by the political establishment go to perish. Based upon the opposition of one state university, the Senate Finance Committee killed the bill a few days later. Undeterred, an identical bill, HB 1473, came over from the House without a single negative vote. Again, it was endorsed by the Senate Education Committee, this time on a 14-1 vote. Again, it was “rereferred” to Senate Finance. Again, Senate Finance killed the bill, albeit on a close (7-6) vote, based upon one university’s opposition.
Sen. Chap Petersen, Richmond Times-Dispatch