Transparency News 3/16/17

Happy Birthday, James Madison!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

State and Local Stories
Execution witnesses in Virginia now will see less of the proceedings, no longer viewing inmates as they are led into the execution chamber and strapped onto the gurney or into the electric chair. Recent changes in the Virginia Department of Corrections execution manual alter decades-old practices and appear, in part, to have been made in response to issues that arose during the Jan. 18 injection execution of Ricky Javon Gray, which drew more attention than usual because of a new chemical cocktail.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Virginia’s top transportation official says he’s asking lawyers to scour a public contract with Elizabeth River Crossings to pressure the company to scale back late fees on tunnel tolls. After The Pilot published a story online Wednesday about three women with five-figure debts, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne told the Commonwealth Transportation Board that he was disappointed by ERC’s business practices. “I’m not trying to make any excuse for anyone that doesn’t pay their bills,” Layne told the board. “But come on – $14,000 for tolls?” A legislative directive in the state’s budget aims to give the Department of Transportation more oversight. It requires the agency to come up with a plan by November to track toll road use, violations, civil penalties and administrative fees charged and collected by private toll operators each year. But Layne says it’s not so simple. ERC has to agree to release that information, per the contract. State officials have long complained that the deal, signed by former Gov. Bob McDonnell, doesn’t give them much power over the company.

Two Altavista Town Council members were arrested this week and charged with “prohibit activity at polls,” according to Blue Ridge Regional Jail records. Michele Kathleen Brumfield was arrested Tuesday in connection to an incident Nov. 8, 2016, or Election Day. James Hunter Higginbotham, arrested Wednesday, is not yet in the court system.
News & Advance

National Stories

Today’s the day. They made it through the draft, out the door, onto the floor, through this painful metaphor, and now our FOIA March Madness 2017 requests are ready to be processed and represent their agencies for the position of MuckRock’s Most Responsive Agency.  We’ve asked 64 federal agencies for materials related to their appeal process. Each FOIA office has a process for dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests that the requester feels has been handled inappropriately - it took too long, the fee category was wrong, maybe they got a little liberal with those black boxes. We want to know what that process is and which appeals have made it through successfully.

Tennessee legislative leaders are moving forward with a review of exemptions to the state's open records laws. The Tennessean reports that Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell sent a letter Monday to the Office of Open Records Counsel. They requested a thorough and comprehensive review of exemptions to the Tennessee Public Records Act.

The agency that protects Arkansas' state Capitol and grounds now has the authority to operate in secret after the governor let a Freedom of Information exemption become law without his signature. The measure, Senate Bill 131, was intended to close loopholes that some believed would let anyone access security assignments and becomes law without the signature of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. As the bill is written, it would prevent disclosure of any information about the force: its size, its racial or gender makeup or any officer's salary. A similar bill extending privacy to police forces at state-funded colleges and universities received final passage in the Senate on Tuesday.
US News

The town of Gulf Stream, Florida, known for its protected pine trees and coastal views along State Road A1A in Palm Beach County, is ground zero for a statewide public records battle. A feud between town officials and a local businessman exemplifies the battle in existing public records laws that some lawmakers are using as reason to introduce legislation that some say has the potential to irreparably harm Florida's Sunshine Law, while others argue is needed to stop the abuse. Florida legislators are drafting bills that aim to end, as one lawmaker calls it, the "cottage industry" of using public records laws for profit.

In “Forecasting Freedom of Information,” the work of University of Arizona associate professor of journalism David Cuillier, a survey of 300 people–journalists, advocates, record custodians, technology companies, scholars and freedom of information experts–revealed lengthy delays, ignored requests, excessive fees and, in many cases, an unwillingness to consider producing government records because of outmoded technology.


In a very short time, we have moved from the notion of, "Hey, wouldn’t it be great if I could get the information I want online" to the expectation that, "Of course, the information I want is online." Some may still be making the transition, but younger Virginians live with a near absolute confidence that whatever they want to know will be readily available through an online search. Not an extensive search, either, but just a few clicks. Basic information about government should be no different.
Megan Rhyne, Virginian-Pilot