Transparency News 3/18/19



March 18, 2019


Eventbrite - ACCESS 2019: VCOG's Open Government Conference
April 11 | Hampton University

state & local news stories




"Alan Gernhardt, executive director of the state’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council, said he thinks Norfolk police’s use of the [administrative investigations] exemption is overly broad."

As Richmond taxpayers face a possible ticking up in their property taxes, CBS 6 wanted to know how much money city employees each make in overtime compared to their counterparts in Henrico and Chesterfield. After requesting the numbers from all three through the Freedom of Information Act Request, Henrico and Chesterfield quickly handed them over, but Richmond refused. Technically, yes, the city can decline to release the information because the law does not mandate the disclosure of individual personnel's overtime pay - but the law doesn't say they can't be released.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill this week amending a law barring schools from disclosing student directory information. Last year, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, sponsored a bill that said no school could disclose student contact information unless students or their parents explicitly say otherwise. However, when the law went into effect, schools began reporting they were unable to communicate internally for educational purposes. “After the bill was passed last year, as schools began to implement it, there was a couple little glitches folks found, so they brought that to me,” Wilt said Friday.
The Roanoke Times

The Richmond School Board remains divided over its handling of next year’s budget, a tension on full display at Saturday’s retreat an hour away from the city. The group spent the majority of its five-hour session at the Virginia School Boards Association in Charlottesville discussing issues of trust among its nine members, pointing to a budget process that brought widespread public criticism after the board approved a financial plan before releasing it to the public. Superintendent Jason Kamras continued to defend the decision Saturday, saying again that in his view the budget could be kept private because it includes personnel information.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Want to know if a small number of Norfolk police officers are responsible for a disproportionate number of line-of-duty shootings? Beating suspects? Tasering them? Want to know if police use force differently in different parts of the city? If officers are using force disproportionately on black people? The Virginian-Pilot used the state’s open records law to request every Norfolk Police Department use-of-force report from the past decade. The department and the city denied every one. In doing so, city officials cited a section of the law that says police can decline to release “administrative investigations relating to allegations of wrongdoing by employees of a law-enforcement agency.” Although police withheld the reports based on the “wrongdoing” exemption, people filed complaints in less than 5 percent of use-of-force incidents, department data shows. Alan Gernhardt, executive director of the state’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council, said he thinks Norfolk police’s use of the exemption is overly broad. But, he added, police could also keep the records confidential using several other provisions of state law, such as those that exempt personnel records, criminal investigative files or non-criminal files.
The Virginian-Pilot

The Heritage Museum, home of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society, announced Friday that it is now a FamilySearch affiliate library. The Heritage Museum will host an open house and special presentation on March 30 at 10:30 am to inform the public on what that means, and how it will help genealogy researchers across the Valley, according to a press release. As part of the affiliation, the Heritage Museum’s genealogy library is now open to the public free of charge.
Daily News Record


stories of national interest

Kathryn Green just wanted to know what had happened to her son. It had been more than two months since 27-year-old Patrick died of bacterial meningitis while incarcerated at the Harris County jail, and still there were so many questions. How long had he been sick? Had he shown symptoms? What had been done to help him? So in early June 2015, Green, a Houston lawyer, did what thousands of Texans do every year: She asked for the records. She requested Patrick's autopsy report and the investigative report into his death. She demanded the video surveillance from inside the jail, and any other public clues that might help piece together his final hours. One by one, she was turned down. The Greens' plight is all too common in Texas, where records that might have once been public are increasingly difficult to obtain, according to an analysis of 10 years worth of attorney general's decisions by ABC13 in collaboration with the Houston Chronicle. The review found that the number of appeals from state and local agencies to withhold information has nearly doubled in the last decade, up to about 32,000 in 2018. Nearly all of those efforts to withhold records are granted, at least in part. 
Houston Chronicle





"The review [of records denials in Texas] found that the number of appeals from state and local agencies to withhold information has nearly doubled in the last decade."


editorials & columns



"If there is no contract - well, who does business that way? And if there is such a document, where did it go?"

Back in October, the paper was looking into the turmoil that surrounded the Pittsylvania County Department of Social Services for much of last year, leading up to the firing of DSS director Sherry Flanagan. Part of the paper’s research included a FOIA request to county officials for emails from and between DSS board members for a time period beginning before Flanagan was fired and immediately following her dismissal. That request yielded emails from two of the eight board members, something that understandably raised red flags and questions, the biggest being, “Where are the emails from the other six board members?” The messages turned over, however, suggested there was additional correspondence out there, and the paper made a supplemental request for any additional documents. That resulted on one more email being given to the reporter. The bulk of the emails turned over to the Register & Bee came from the account of Supervisor Ron Scearce, then the liaison from the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors to the DSS board. His correspondence was quickly obtained, because it came through his official county email account. The other members of the DSS board, all appointees of the Board of Supervisors, used their personal email addresses. Though Virginia law doesn’t require elected and public officials use government email accounts, the information sent by those individuals that are regarded as “public documents” are still subject to FOIA. Having a government email account, that operates through a government-maintained server, just makes things simpler for all involved.
Register & Bee

Usually, when you plan to spend a good chunk of your money on a major purchase - a home, a car, a boat - you have to sign a contract before you can move in, drive away or float down a river. In the business world, contracts are essential for agreements and to buy and sell. That's why we are so puzzled about how there is no contract for the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority criminal justice academy project.  After we filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the contract, an EDA official told us this week that a contract with a private investor who was supposed to finance up to $8 million for the project could not be found, or does not exist. That is astonishing! The EDA has spent $540,269 on that project.  If there is no contract - well, who does business that way? And if there is such a document, where did it go - stolen during a break-in at the EDA office? To quote Lewis Carroll's Alice in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland": "Curiouser and curiouser!"
The Northern Virginia Daily