Transparency News, 3/16/20



March 16, 2020

There's at least one thing that hasn't been canceled due to COVID-19......SUNSHINE WEEK!!
March 15 - 21


state & local news stories


"More than half of the money the [Richmond Mayor Levar] Stoney administration spent was paid out before the mayor formally released the plans last August."

When Parker Gunn was introduced to the school board last week as the new communications and community outreach coordinator for Martinsville City Public Schools, at least two members needed no introduction. Neither did the pair vote to approve the personnel report presented after reconvening closed session on Jan. 13, when Superintendent Zebedee Talley hired Gunn to fill this newly created position.  Emily Parker and Yvonne Givens are the newest members on the board. Parker is also Gunn’s mother, and Givens is Gunn’s stepmother-in-law. State law, as Talley cites, did change in 2019 to allow school boards to hire relatives, but the process of Gunn’s hiring raises questions about whether the MCPS followed all the required steps specified in that new law. Talley was attending a National Conference on Education in San Diego for three days in February when he was asked about Gunn’s hiring, and he referred further questions by the Martinsville Bulletin to his executive assistant and Clerk of the Board Janie Fulcher. Under the Freedom of Information Act the Martinsville Bulletin requested a copy of the certification from Parker and Givens that they had no involvement with the hiring decision of Gunn, but Fulcher responded for Talley and said, “The requested documentation does not exist.” When asked for a copy of the written certification from Talley to the other members of the school board, Fulcher refused on the grounds the request was for “personnel information,” and the school system was entitled to withhold it. The Bulletin asked for details as to when and how the written certification from Talley was distributed to the board members, and Fulcher again refused on the basis that the board is not required to share information that is conducted during their closed meeting session.
Martinsville Bulletin

Charlottesville and Albemarle County are reevaluating their public meetings, canceling some and moving several online amid coronavirus concerns. No cases of the virus have been reported in either the city or county, according to data available Saturday evening from the Virginia Department of Health.  Following recommendations from the Thomas Jefferson Health District that gatherings of more than 100 people be avoided to limit spread of the virus, the city announced that it has canceled all but one of its public meetings of boards and commissions for the foreseeable future. For the sole holdout — Monday’s City Council meeting — officials are discouraging the public from attending in-person, instead offering alternative means of participation. The options are split between “view only” and a pilot “view and participate” option, with the former category spotlighting the already-in-use options of viewing the meets via Comcast Cable TC Channel 10, a livestream on the city’s website and a live broadcast via Facebook. Those who wish to view and participate will be able to do so via an online webinar available on internet-connected devices.
The Daily Progress

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s pursuit of the failed Navy Hill project came with a price tag. Outside lawyers, advisers and a consultant the Stoney administration hired to vet the $1.5 billion plan to replace the Richmond Coliseum and redevelop a swath of downtown cost $1 million, according to the results of a public records request. The sum went to the city’s financial adviser, Davenport & Co., which enlisted other firms to assist with the mayor’s review of the plans, invoices spanning two years provided by the city’s Department of Finance show. More than half of the money the Stoney administration spent was paid out before the mayor formally released the plans last August. That came after a year and a half of closed door review and negotiations with NH District Corp., the development group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II. Not captured in the invoices is staff time devoted to the project over two years. Administrators are salaried and exempt from overtime, meaning time spent on the project would not have resulted in higher compensation. A Stoney spokesman said the mayor’s administration did not track time its department heads and other staffers spent reviewing the proposal from Farrell’s group.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The head of public housing in Richmond believes he should have a say in who his boss is. That power technically lies with the Richmond City Council, which is in the process of appointing candidates to fill six of the nine seats on the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. But on Tuesday, a council panel invited RRHA CEO Damon Duncan to take part in interviews with about half a dozen candidates at a meeting that was closed to the public and media.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Citing a First Amendment reporter’s privilege, two Virginia circuit judges have blocked subpoenas seeking information gathered by a Richmond news reporter. One ruling includes written analysis in a two-page order. Both judges held the company seeking the reporter’s information had to show a compelling interest to overcome the “qualified reporter privilege.” Marathon Resource Management Group – a Hanover County-based company – failed to meet the test, the judges ruled. The rulings barred inquiries directed to WRIC-TV and its anchor and investigative reporter, Kerri O’Brien, who has been covering an ongoing public-relations war between Marathon and vendors who claimed they have not been paid for their work
Virginia Lawyers Weekly

Front Royal Resident Paul Gabbert is disgruntled over the town requesting what he believes is an unjustified $2,000 deposit for a Freedom of Information Act request. Gabbert’s initial request stated: “I would like to get all correspondence, letters and emails received from the public to the Mayor, members of the Town Council and the interim Town Manager from January 1, 2020, through today February 14, 2020.” The request was a response to Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick saying during a Feb. 10 Town Council meeting that he has received comments from citizens that they are happy with his and the Town Council’s performance. For that request, Town Attorney Doug Napier stated in an email that it would cost an estimated $2,816 to perform the work and the town requires a $2,000 deposit. FOIA laws do allow localities to require deposits if a request exceeds $200. On Feb. 20, Gabbert sent an amended and reduced FOIA request seeking “all emails/written correspondence sent to the interim town manager stating he is doing a good job with his duties as a town manager.” For this request, Napier stated the town also requires a $2,000 deposit. Napier states it would take an estimated 32 hours to fulfill the request, including 10 hours “to search digital records,” 12 hours “to research hard copy records,” and two hours to “copy and scan them and put them in appropriate order to make sure that the Town is not double-copying them.” He adds it would take eight hours “of attorney time to review those records for attorney-client privilege, attorney work product, personnel records, and records protected by the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act and other laws.”
The Northern Virginia Daily
(NOTE: The GDCDPA does not contain exemptions to the release of records sought under FOIA.)

stories of national interest

As state and local officials around Arkansas dust off their emergency response plans to tackle the outbreak of coronavirus, some are concluding that those plans are exempt from public disclosure. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week requested copies of emergency response plans covering epidemics and infectious disease outbreaks from several agencies, constitutional offices and local governments. The newspaper also sought the same information from four large public school districts. Nearly half of the responses denied the release of documents under various claimed exemptions to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Other agencies did not immediately respond to the requests. Under the law, they have three business days in which to comply. The secretary of state's office and the North Little Rock School District denied the newspaper's request, pointing to certain security records exemptions, a provision that was passed by the Legislature three years ago. The attorney general's office denied a request by pointing to its "working papers" exemption under the Freedom of Information Act, while the Arkansas Department of Corrections cited a long-standing exemption for its emergency preparedness documents.
Northwest Arkansas Democrtat-Gazette

Two years ago, just after the Chester County (South Carolina) school superintendent filed a lawsuit against the school board’s chairwoman and its attorney, Travis Jenkins did what any good journalist would do. The editor of the Chester News and Reporter submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking copies of emails to and from the superintendent. It was a routine request for messages that could provide insight into a breakdown in leadership — no different from other requests Jenkins has sent during his 17 years at the paper. What was different was the bill he got back. “They said they could accommodate my request for the low, low price of $29,000,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t have the money.” That’s just one example of the eye-popping fees S.C. government agencies have levied for public records in recent years, even after state lawmakers changed the law in 2017 to speed up records requests and rein in charges for retrieving and turning over the documents.
The Post and Courier


"That’s just one example of the eye-popping fees S.C. government agencies have levied for public records in recent years."


editorials & columns

"It is a coincidence that this crisis is escalating at the beginning of Sunshine Week."

It’s hard to remember a time when the free flow of reliable public information was more important than it is today. Communities are desperate for facts from trustworthy sources about the coronavirus outbreak and it’s essential that government sources speed their release and provide regular updates as the situation changes rapidly. It is a coincidence that this crisis is escalating at the beginning of Sunshine Week, the annual initiative by media organizations and open-government advocates highlighting the importance of access to government and the people’s right to know. Some public officials — an exhausting number of them, if we’re being honest — don’t care much for oversight and accountability. They believe they are working in the citizens’ interest and that should be enough for the public, thank you very much. But those individuals work on behalf of the public. Some are elected, others appointed, but all chose to work in the public sector and should be eager to honor the accompanying expectations of those roles.
Daily Press