Transparency News 3/15/19



March 15, 2019


Eventbrite - ACCESS 2019: VCOG's Open Government Conference
April 11 | Hampton University
Early-bird pricing good through March 16


state & local news stories




"Arlington County is considering ending same-day viewing at the Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development after a Washington Business Journal reporter asked to view a permit for a building Inc. is expected to lease."

Thanks to those who tuned in to
Facebook Live for our records tutorial!

Arlington County’s agreement with Amazon has drawn the scrutiny of both activists and a leading Virginia open-records advocate over a clause that gives the company at least two business days to refute, redact or file a lawsuit when someone seeks records of its interaction with the county. While the Arlington County attorney and the director of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) say confidentiality clauses are standard concepts in economic development deals, the two-day minimum provision is not, said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the nonpartisan Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Rhyne said she compared the Amazon incentive deal, which the Arlington County Board is scheduled to vote on Saturday, with several previous economic development deals in the county.
The Washington Post

The Amazon deal, which is scheduled to go before the County Board on Saturday, asks the county to limit disclosure of company information, a typical provision of most such agreements. What sets the Amazon deal apart is the promise that Arlington will give the company two business days' written notice when a public records request is made under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The two days will allow Amazon to “take such steps as it deems appropriate with regard to the requested disclosure of records”and “disclose only such records as are subject to mandatory disclosure under VaFOIA or other applicable law or regulation.” The other agreements I reviewed require the county only to work with the corporate entity to redact any reports slated to be released. 
Washington Business Journal, on VCOG's shared Google Drive

It could soon take longer to get access to Arlington County building permits or site plans, possibly days. And you'll probably need to file a written request through the state's open records law. Arlington officials are considering ending same-day viewing at the Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development after a Washington Business Journal reporter asked to view a permit for a building Inc. is expected to lease, said Ben Aiken, director of constituent services in the county manager’s office. All requests for any document not published on the county's website would have to be made in writing to the county manager's office, Aiken said. The county has allowed the public to walk in and view documents for years. The review comes just days before the Arlington County Board is scheduled to vote on an incentive deal with the e-commerce behemoth that includes a unique confidentiality section. If passed, Arlington would agree to give the tech titan two business days' notice on public records requests involving Amazon. The county says the agreement is not substantially different from agreements it has made with other corporations, but some experts disagree.
Washington Business Journal

In our democratic society, government decisions are made in open view. Elected bodies cast votes in public, but often times the discussions leading up to those choices take place in private. Search the agenda for school board, city council, and board of supervisor meetings in our region and you'll often see the words "closed session." Virginia law allows public bodies to hold meetings behind closed doors for a limited number of reasons. When that privilege is invoked, everything is off the record. No minutes are taken and nothing is recorded, which means there's little accountability to prove those private conversations are appropriate under the law.

The media may attend the trial of a 14-year-old boy charged with voluntary manslaughter in the death last December of 12-year-old Kemon Battle. Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Judge Bryan Meals made the decision Thursday at the request of The Virginian-Pilot — and over the objections of prosecutors. He said there was not good cause to close the trial, especially since the defense agreed it should be open.
The Virginian-Pilot


stories of national interest

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled the Federal Bureau of Investigation must search for and produce records related to the agency’s impersonation of documentary filmmakersduring investigations in response to a request from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for more information about the practice. After learning the FBI impersonated a documentary film crew to investigate Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers following a 2014 armed standoff between Bundy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Reporters Committee requested access to records related to this practice under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI issued what’s known as a Glomar response, refusing to confirm or deny the existence of records responsive to the Reporters Committee’s request. The Reporters Committee challenged that response, arguing that it was improper, and the D.C. District Court agreed.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The truth is out there. Want to know why there were all those cop cars in the neighborhood the other day? Is that new restaurant safe to eat at? Does your tap water look or taste funny? Fortunately, all of these answers can be found through a public records request. South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (sometimes called FOIA) requires all records generated by the government, with some exceptions, to be released to anyone who asks for them.
The State
NOTE: The story's about South Carolina law, but the overall advice and the things you can find out apply to Virginia (mostly), too.

The Department of Justice says it doesn't plan to release mug shots of actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, a move that is sure to disappoint anyone enjoying the schadenfreude factor in the massive college-admissions cheating scandal dubbed Operation Varsity Blues. The DOJ and U.S. Marshals Services say their policies prohibit releasing the photos because doing so doesn't serve the agencies' needs if the person in question has already been apprehended. In other words, putting them out post-arrest only serves the public's fascination. So what about a Freedom of Information request? The government no longer grants routine access to federal mug shots through FOIA, a decision which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2016. Now anyone requesting a mug shot through FOIA must provide legal justification for its release that outweighs the defendant's right to privacy.
USA Today




"The DOJ and U.S. Marshals Services say their policies prohibit releasing [mug shots] because doing so doesn't serve the agencies' needs."


editorials & columns



"When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law on July 4, 1966, the president, normally a fan of flashy signing ceremonies, did so unhappily in private."

In addition to (and perhaps because of) Louisiana's long legacy of colorful and compromised politicians — from the Longs and Edwin Edwards to Ray Nagin and David Vitter — one thing that made it a great place to be a journalist was its expansive public records law, with provisions on immediacy, exceptions and cost that, while not perfect, greatly favor public disclosure. It was quite a thing as a young reporter to march into the parish government, sheriff’s office or school system offices and request police reports, enrollment figures, budgets, resumes of candidates applying for government jobs and myriad other pieces of public information that had to be made available on the spot if they were readily accessible. Regrettably, records laws in the states I have worked in since, including Virginia, have failed to match up. You might not know that this has been Sunshine Week, a news industry initiative to promote the importance of access to public information.
Robert Zullo, Virginia Mercury

Perhaps the most important tool enabling Americans to ensure that their government is open and, therefore, accountable, is the Freedom of Information Act, a 52-year-old law that requires the federal government to release nonexempt information when it is requested.  But despite FOIA’s power and importance, the administration of the law is deeply flawed. One major flaw in FOIA stems from charging the Justice Department with overseeing it.  When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law on July 4, 1966, the president, normally a fan of flashy signing ceremonies, did so unhappily in private, personally handwriting “no ceremony” in response to a memo suggesting a public event. At the suggestion of the Justice Department, Johnson added a signing statement that undercut the intent of the law with warnings about the danger of the disclosure of military secrets, investigative files, executive privilege and confidential advice.
Nate Jones, The Washington Post