Transparency News, 3/15/2023



March 15, 2023

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state & local news stories


Seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies were charged Tuesday with second-degree murder in last week’s death of a 28-year-old mental health patient from Henrico who apparently was asphyxiated during a struggle with officers while being admitted to Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Richmond Times-Dispatch requested a copy of the hospital security footagefrom the Virginia Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, which oversees the state-run psychiatric facility. But officials declined to release it, citing exemptions under FOIA that pertain to investigative files relating to an ongoing criminal investigation and health records.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea voted in April 2020 as a member of the Virginia Parole Board to grant parole to Vincent Martin, who was convicted of killing a Richmond police officer in 1979, according to records obtained by The Rambler. The decision was the focus of an inspector general’s investigation into how the board operated and sparked outrage among the officer’s family, law enforcement and conservative politicians.
The Roanoke Rambler

The Rocky Mount Town Council took a major step toward becoming the first locality in Virginia to have term limits for both the mayor and members of the council. A vote to change to the town’s charter to include term limits was unanimously approved Monday and now must go to the Virginia General Assembly. If the legislature approves, the mayor and council members will be limited to three consecutive terms of four years each. A public hearing on adding term limits to the town’s charter was held just before the vote. No citizens signed up to speak at Monday’s meeting.
The Roanoke Times

At the end of day one of Staunton City Council’s retreat, Mayor Steven Claffey told a story about the end of the previous city council retreat. He said that he couldn’t wait to leave, and that he practically ran out of the door at the end.  This time around, however, Claffey was appreciative of the lack of fireworks. With three new members of council who ran campaigns committed to end divisiveness on council and in the city, the proceedings of the two-day marathon meeting practically flew by. News of council getting along and working together is welcome for Staunton residents, who had been increasingly displeased with the rancor on council. That reputation had grown beyond the bounds of the city, with references to the discord in Staunton being made at meetings of other jurisdictions. 
News Leader

Portsmouth City Assessor Patrick Dorris has officially been fired by City Council following a vote at its Tuesday meeting. Council voted 5-1, with Dr. Mark Whitaker voting against and Councilman De'Andre Barnes absent after being escorted out of the council chamber earlier in the meeting over council rules created regarding his streaming council meetings on Facebook Live from the dais.

A March 13 budget work session was, on the surface, about a routine funding request for administrative support staff. Instead — and perhaps predictably — the meeting quickly went off the rails as the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors tried to answer a very different question: Can Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, the county’s top prosecutor, be trusted to perform her role adequately in the criminal justice system? ... The March 13 work session, for instance, was supposed to be about Biberaj’s $444,000 funding request for an executive assistant, two legal services assistants and a paralegal. Biberaj’s comments to supervisors suggested this need was due, in part, to the need to review footage from body-worn camera footage before certain criminal hearings. But Supervisor Kristen Umstattd questioned Biberaj’s interpretation of state law regarding the timing of prosecutors’ obligation to review the footage — and she questioned whether Biberaj had been truthful about when that footage is reviewed under currently policy. Umstattd said that she wanted to know “if the statement of the degree of burden is entirely correct,” a comment met with audible sneering from Biberaj’s supporters in the audience.
The Loudoun Times-Mirror

The Patrick County Board of Supervisors heard the concerns of residents at a regular meeting Monday night about the possible construction of solar farms in Patrick County. Last week, Geri Hazelwood abruptly resigned as the administrator of Patrick County at the same time it was discovered her signature was on the approval of a solar project that may not have passed through the proper channels. Jane Fulk, a citizen-at-large member of the Planning Commission said part of the problem came down to someone’s negligence. “I want to request that all correspondence be sent to the chairman of the Planning Commission,” said Fulk to the Board of Supervisors. “It goes through the administration process and it needs to be sent to the chairman of the planning commission, because we haven’t been getting a lot of it.”
Martinsville Bulletin


stories of national interest

"Getting agenda packets the board would analyze at an upcoming meeting or figuring out ongoing expenditures for a school renovation proved more difficult."

Public school systems in Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C., generally do well sharing basic information on their websites, such as how to contact the superintendent or when the next school board meeting will be held. But finding information on school websites about teacher and superintendent salaries, the amount spent per pupil or the amounts of contracts with outside vendors can be a challenge. The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association examined 29 public school system websites in the three jurisdictions. The press association looked for basic public information, such as email addresses and phone numbers, as well as more detailed data, such as school district budgets and copies of contracts. MDDC found that most school systems make it easy to check in on school board meetings — all of them livestream their sessions. But in many systems, getting agenda packets the board would analyze at an upcoming meeting or figuring out ongoing expenditures for a school renovation proved more difficult. 

Research has found that computer models can predict the likely fate of proposed legislative amendments and the most effective pathways for lobbyists. This technology mixed with micro-legislation could muddle transparency. Lobbying has long been part of the give-and-take among human policymakers and advocates working to balance their competing interests. The danger of microlegislation—a danger greatly exacerbated by AI—is that it can be used in a way that makes it difficult to figure out who the legislation truly benefits.

Michigan legislative leaders from both parties this week unveiled Sunshine Week proposals in efforts to increase government transparency.  Started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors — now known as the News Leaders Association — the partnership with The Society of Professional Journalists highlights access to public information and the role a free press plays in our democracy. Recent attempts to subject the Legislature and governor to open records requests passed on a bipartisan basis in the GOP-controlled House, but stalled out in the GOP-led Senate.  Democrats are vowing that will change this session as they push for it to finally be signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The GOP bills would also expand the Freedom of Information (FOIA) Act to include the governor and legislature, create constitutionally required financial disclosure forms for lawmakers, prohibit legislators from voting when they or an immediate family member could personally benefit, create a cooling-off period that prohibits legislators and government department heads from becoming lobbyists for two years after the end of their term or tenure.
Michigan Advance

editorials & columns

"We have great watchdogs like the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the Virginia Press Association monitoring compliance with the law — and lawmakers who would like to weaken it."

Sunshine Week is our annual chance to educate while we celebrate the freedom of information about our government we as citizens are entitled to.  Without so-called sunshine laws, those in power would be able to make important actions on complex issues that impact your lives shrouded in secrecy. Even with laws meant to prevent that, attempts are still made. We must stay vigilant. The federal Freedom of Information Act provides us access to federal documents with limited exceptions. At the state level, we rely on the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to allow us to look behind curtains and delve into the documentation of how our tax dollars are spent. We are fortunate that our means of accessing information are simpler in Virginia than some places.  And we have great watchdogs like the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the Virginia Press Association monitoring compliance with the law — and lawmakers who would like to weaken it. 
The Smithfield Times

Conceptionally, the [federal] Freedom of Information Act represents a valuable tool to advance democracy through the disinfectant of transparency. A statute that imposes on agencies a legal obligation to respond to any valid request for documents, FOIA empowers everyday citizens and good government groups alike to pierce the veil of secrecy that too often shrouds government agencies. FOIA provides a vehicle to fact-check the government and delve deeper into the process by which agencies develop government policies. Its utility has led to a proliferation of watchdog groups over the last two decades, established for the express purpose of using FOIA to compel government disclosure, and a sharp rise in new FOIA requests. Standing alone, however, the increased use of FOIA by an ever-expanding population of requesters fails to answer the central question of whether FOIA has lived up to its promise. Anecdotal evidence suggests it has not. Delays lie at the root of the problem and neither FOIA’s mandatory timeframes for responding nor its expedition provision have curbed agencies’ excessive processing times.
Anne Weismann, Americans for Prosperity