Transparency News, 3/18/20


March 18, 2020
There's at least one thing that hasn't been canceled due to COVID-19......SUNSHINE WEEK!!



state & local news stories
"The counterbalance to our indulgence is the public body's obligation to actually be MORE transparent."
It may be the height of irony during Sunshine Week -- the access and transparency community's annual love letter to open records and open meetings laws across our country -- to hear me say the rules of open government might not apply right now. Now is a time for vigilance, for sure, but it's also a time for allowances. That is, the public's business -- much of it required by statute -- still has to be done. Budgets have to be adopted, contracts need to be agreed to, appointments need to be made and policies need to be adopted and implemented. This is not a carte blanche. This is not an opportunity or invitation to ram through business and ideas away from the prying eyes of the public. In fact, the counterbalance to our indulgence is the public body's obligation to actually be MORE transparent. 
Megan Rhyne, VCOG Blog

When should governments decide to overlook requirements that they meet in-person and in public?
Virginia Public Radio
The letter referenced in the story, asking Attorney General Mark Herring to weigh in.
VCOG's Google Drive

Fauquier officials will take extraordinary measures at Thursday’s public hearing on the county’s proposed 2021 budget and tax rates to thwart the spread of the coronavirus. In declaring a local state of emergency, County Administrator Paul McCulla announced Monday night that citizens will not be able to attend the public hearing; they may watch online and submit testimony via email.

Amid a growing epidemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, there’s a glaring spotlight on fundamental medical equipment. At least right now, though, the state hasn’t publicly released specific information on its existing medical infrastructure. Carey said the governor’s team had estimates on the number of available hospital beds, but that information wasn’t immediately provided by the administration or Virginia Department of Health on Tuesday. The state also hasn’t released additional information on the supply of personal protective equipment for medical workers. Last week, Oliver said he placed an order for $2.7 million in respirator masks, which filter out airborne contaminants — including viral droplets. On Tuesday, Oliver said the department received a “portion” of what was ordered. But the state didn’t confirm how many masks it received or when the order was placed. 
Virginia Mercury
stories of national interest
The National Freedom of Information Coalition is pleased to unveil a new bill tracking tool that will allow the public to more easily access information about transparency-related bills in their state.  NFOIC has created 51 dashboards on its website for each state and the District of Columbia. The dashboards are powered by Quorum, a Washington D.C.-based software company, that scrapes every legislative website in real time. 
NOTE: The Virginia results on the site capture many, many bills that do not actually affect access, for instance, bills that amend a section that has a reference to the Freedom of Information Act but that does not affect existing law. VCOG weeds those bills out of its bill-tracking chart.

In a time of "social distancing," doctors don't recommend cramming a bunch of people into a small room. So how are public meetings supposed to continue? Wisconsin's Department of Justice released guidance on Monday, saying public agencies should continue posting notice about public meetings while holding them via phone or video; it also emphasized to need to accommodate the public when remote access is difficult. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a transparency advocacy group, released a statement supporting the guidelines.


editorials & columns
"Sunshine, they say, is the best disinfectant. It may not kill the coronavirus, but it does have a decidedly cleansing effect on some of the worst instincts of government."
At a chain-reaction wreck of a meeting in January, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) and its governing board ran roughshod over free speech, adequate meeting notice and the chain of command. The agenda was posted a mere 27 hours before a vote on whether to pursue demolishing Creighton Court. The board doubled down on a draconian rule restricting public comment to once every three months, which choked off dissent. And its executive director, Damon Duncan, submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development days before the board signed off. RRHA needs an assertive, detail-oriented board more inclined toward vigorous oversight of the executive who serves at its pleasure. Instead, on March 10, in a reversal of form, that executive interviewed his potential bosses at the invitation of a City Council panel tasked with filling six positions on the nine-member RRHA board. The meeting was closed to the public and media. The signals in the aftermath were as mixed as those coming out of a White House press conference on the coronavirus.
Michael Paul Williams, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Scholars still debate exactly where that particular H1N1 virus [the Spanish Flu] came from, other than that genetically it has genes that point to an avian origin — a type of “bird flu.” Some say it first surfaced in China, others in France and Austria. There were flu outbreaks in all those places that may have predated the 1918 pandemic. There’s also some body of research that suggests the flu began in the United States — specifically in Haskell County, Kansas, under a major migratory bird flyway. That’s where the flu first appeared in the United States; soldiers from there carried the disease to training camps and, eventually, to Europe. So why isn’t the flu called the American flu or the Kansas flu? The short answer: Wartime censorship. . . . The basic nature of government has not changed from [President Woodrow] Wilson’s time — it is not always inclined to share information, no matter what its political orientation. Certainly there are legitimate secrets that ought to be protected, but most of the routine actions of government don’t fit under that category. As a general operating principle, democracies are better off with more information, not less, which takes us back to the 1918 pandemic. Americans would have been better off then if they had known more about what was happening. Likewise, we’d be better off now if we knew more about lots of things. Sunshine, they say, is the best disinfectant. It may not kill the coronavirus, but it does have a decidedly cleansing effect on some of the worst instincts of government.
The Roanoke Times