Transparency News, 3/15/21


 March 15, 2021
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state & local news
“The ordinance was not intended to get out of the responsibilities that we have under the Freedom of Information Act. It was really in response to the pandemic.”
It's Sunshine Week and VCOG's making the most of working from home with a series of short podcasts to update you on the recently concluded General Assembly. We'll look at how VCOG approaches each session, reviews the bills we followed that did and didn't pass, and we'll take a up-close look at one bill that went our way, and one that did not.
Today's episode: VCOG's approach to the General Assembly

According to emails obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Esther Brown did not receive an automated notification about the March decision to deny parole [to the killer of Brown's surrogate granddaughter] because Adrianne Bennett, then the chairwoman of the parole board and now a judge in Virginia Beach, asked others to block notifications to Esther Brown while the parole board in April reconsidered the case. Bennett said through a lawyer for this story that notifications were turned off because the board reconsidered its vote and didn’t want to provide conflicting information to a victim’s relative, and that the case was handled properly. According to the emails obtained in the Brown case, Bennett wrote to parole board staffers on April 1, 2020, to say the board would be voting again on whether to grant Brown’s parole. “There is one registered victim,” Bennett wrote. “It does not appear that notification of the [March 26 decision not to grant parole] has gone out yet. Anyway to stop the notification?”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
Nine cases show a pattern of violations that center on releasing inmates without first giving proper notice to state prosecutors or to victims’ family members, who are allowed to provide input on the impact a release may have on them or the community before the inmates are granted parole, according to reports by the Office of the State Inspector General that were obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. OSIG did not investigate the merits of whether the inmates should be released from prison, but rather whether the parole board followed policy and state law in making the decisions. OSIG made heavy redactions to the public version of reports in half a dozen cases that were provided to news media last year. The inmates’ names and the nature of the parole board violations were not disclosed. Unredacted copies of those reports recently have been made available to a handful of reporters, and the substantiated allegations are largely identical in each parolee’s case.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Public records have become harder to get since the world was upended by the pandemic a year ago. Governors, legislatures and local officials have suspended or ignored laws setting deadlines to respond to records requests. They cited obstacles for staffers who are working at home or are overwhelmed with crisis management. Last April, Virginia's Albemarle County, which surrounds Charlottesville, extended indefinitely the deadlines to respond to records requests. The county board later softened that stance before finally repealing the extension in November — a move that came shortly after state Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said state law does not allow local governments to modify such deadlines. Albemarle County spokesperson Emily Kilroy said the timing of the repeal was merely coincidental. “The ordinance was not intended to get out of the responsibilities that we have under the Freedom of Information Act,” she said. “It was really in response to the pandemic.”
The Daily Progress
editorials & columns
To provide adequate oversight of law enforcement, it makes sense that police records be available for public review. These are, after all, agents working in the public trust, and transparency ensures the rights of the accused are protected and should discourage abuse by officers. Concede that some information in active investigations — those in progress building a case or for use in prosecution — should be withheld so as not to impede the cause of justice. But there is no reason that closed case files should be kept from public view — not when they tell us so much about a particular incident, how it was handled and the work of the law enforcement agency. Yet lawmakers debated throughout the recently completed General Assembly session about whether to tilt the law even modestly toward openness when it comes to those documents. Even though Virginia’s open government law makes the case for transparency, law enforcement, by and large, aren’t keen on prying eyes peering over their shoulders — even when an investigation concludes and justice is served. The General Assembly ultimately approved a bill that improves the existing law, but it remains to be seen whether this watered-down version can accomplish what its sponsors and advocates hoped.
The Virginian-Pilot