Transparency News 3/13/18

March 13, 2018
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state & local news stories
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It’s been more than three years since the legal battle between a local dentist and the city began, and it appears to be far from over. Last week, the state’s highest court agreed to weigh in on the latest argument in the case: whether the city can refuse to provide details on how it spent $340,000 in legal costs while fighting Dr. Allan Bergano in court. Bergano filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out those details after he won a case against the city last year.  A Virginia Beach dentist sued the city over a relocation battle. This week, he won. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t have to tell you or the citizens exactly what we’re spending your money on,’ even when they’re using that money to fight a taxpayer,” said Brian Kunze, an attorney for Bergano. The city claimed the information was protected by attorney-client privilege, and Virginia Beach Circuit Judge Thomas Padrick agreed when asked to rule on the matter, Kunze said. Bergano appealed the judge’s ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. The entire seven-member court will rule on the matter, Kunze said. It will mark the first time that the court will consider how attorney-client privilege applies in a Freedom of Information Act case, he said.
The Virginian-Pilot

Several practices by state agencies make it difficult to independently review prison inmate deaths in Virginia. First, it’s the Virginia Department of Corrections itself — not an outside agency such as the Virginia State Police — that investigates prison deaths. Second, though the State Medical Examiner’s Office performs autopsies, its findings are based at least in part on what the DOC says took place. Moreover, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act — instead of ensuring transparency into such investigations — shields the death reports from the public. Prior to a new law that took effect last year, not even families had the right to review suicide death reports done by law enforcement agencies.
Daily Press

The Culpeper County School Board on Monday put to rest the issue of public prayer before its meetings and expressed support of its current moment of silence, preferring, as several members said, education over litigation. Nate Clancy (Catalpa District) made the motion to include a prayer or invocation prior to the board’s regular meetings, seconded by Marshall Keene, representing Stevensburg. Clancy and Keene supported the proposal, which fell 5-2. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Clancy said, likening the board to other legislative bodies that open with prayer. “Seeking wisdom is good. We’re not educators, we’re not in the classroom every day.” Betsy Smith, representing the Cedar Mountain District, said she’d deeply struggled with the decision. “Prayer is the foundation of my life,” Smith, a children’s minister at her church, said. “I don’t think I could survive without it.” But when the time to vote came, Smith adopted a cautious approach. “I don’t think it would be a good use of our allotted dollars to end up in litigation,” she said.
Culpeper Star-Exponent
national stories of interest
The National Rifle Association has dramatically increased its funding to schools in recent years amid a national debate over guns and school violence, an Associated Press analysis of tax records has found. But few say they plan to give up the money in the aftermath of the latest mass shooting.
AP News

Delaware State Police say they have spent nearly $185,000 in overtime pay and helicopter costs related to the emergency response to a deadly inmate uprising last year and ensuing investigation. The accounting of costs came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Delaware State News. The newspaper reported Sunday that it had requested a full accounting of expenses, but the agency said it was unable to quantify “how many regular duty hours were expanded in support” of the incident. Instead, it supplied only the overtime and helicopter operational costs.
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Virginia Credit Union House
editorials & columns
quote_3.jpg"Put the power you already possess as an American citizen to good use and fight for good, open government. Make James Madison proud."
Several years ago, a reporter I worked with complained about a response he’d received to a Freedom of Information request he’d filed with a government body. The response had been a polite note that simply explained that to fulfill the entire request would cost more than $2,000 and suggested that perhaps the reporter could narrow the scope of the request. The request, I found, was overly broad and filled with such phrases as “every document containing” certain words. I asked him to explain exactly what he wanted and he said it was a specific report that the government had completed but had not made public. He added that he didn’t want government officials to figure out what he wanted and that’s why he made the request so broad. We rewrote his request and he eventually received the report for under $25. Making a FOIA request is not a scientific undertaking, but there are some strategies to making a request.
Dick Hammerstrom, Bristol Herald Courier

FOIA requests, by individuals and the news media, serve to keep government honest, to keep it from conducting its business in the shadows away from public scrutiny. Whether it’s a local government agency shielding its employees’ actions from the public or the federal government trying to hide misuse of tax dollars, the tools are there for the public to unearth them. In Virginia, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government is the premier organization highlighting the tools available to citizens to rein in and reign over their government. At the group’s website,, you can access the information needed to be a diligent and vigilant citizen. Put the power you already possess as an American citizen to good use and fight for good, open government. Make James Madison proud.
The News & Advance