Transparency News, 3/20/2023



March 20, 2023

There was no newsletter Friday, March 17.


state & local news stories

"In exchange for that admission, Daniel Dunn, a member of the Hamden Police Commission, waived his right to question Hamden police officers before the Freedom of Information Commission."

If only the Republicans were the true standard-bearers of the people’s right to know what their government is doing in their name and with their money. If only the Democrats were the true standard-bearers of the people’s right to know what their government is doing in their name and with their money. If only it were that easy.
Megan Rhyne, Richmond Magazine

The Society of Professional Journalists has named the top 10 urgent threats to freedom of information in 2023 at the local, state and tribal levels in conjunction with Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information. “The public’s right to access government records is critical to a healthy democracy, yet freedom of information is under constant threat," SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair Jodi Rave Spotted Bear said. "Open records laws are critical to government transparency at the local, state, federal and tribal level. All lawmakers should be working to strengthen freedom of information protections, not weaken them. ... State lawmakers in Virginia last month struck down a proposal that would have required disclosure by state agencies of the names of government officials using taxpayer-funded credit cards. Secrecy surrounding which officials are making purchases “means that holding anyone accountable for any questionable purchases is difficult,” Virginia Coalition for Open Government executive director Megan Rhyne told the Virginia Mercury.
Society of Professional Journalists

Dinwiddie County’s chief prosecutor said Friday that she plans to release the Central State Hospital security video that she says shows how seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies held down a mental patient for 12 minutes before he died of asphyxiation. “Now that the family [of the victim] has had the private opportunity to view the tragic video, and with their blessing and encouragement, I plan to release the video at the beginning of the week,” Dinwiddie Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Replying to emails, researching policies, responding to constituent’s calls — some Hampton Roads’ city council members say they’re overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the job and could use a little help. In Virginia Beach and Newport News, council members are looking into hiring assistants — though details about how much to pay them and what their duties will entail are still being hashed out. Newport News Councilman John Eley III noted the challenges of balancing a full-time job with regular meetings with citizens and attending multiple city events each week. He said even after returning home at night, he often spends more than an hour reading and responding to emails and texts.
Daily Press

The Purcellville Town Council has been receiving legal advice from a stand-in attorney, while long-tenured Town Attorney Sally Hankins has been absent from meetings. Interim Manager John Anzivino said that Hankins is on leave and Loudoun Now has reached out to Mayor Stanley J. Milan regarding Hankins’ absence but received no response. Hankins’ leave comes after a contentious first few months between the council and staff, including the termination of Town Manager David Mekarski and the resignation of Zoning Administrator Don Dooley. February was marked with heated exchanges between Milan and Hankins surrounding the Town Council’s initial decision to forego a special election in November for a vacant council seat despite advice from Hankins that they were required to hold a special election. The tension reached a height at a Feb. 14 meeting, when the council was faced with the option of voting to hold a special election or not after Council Members Erin Rayner and Mary Jane Williams filed a Writ of Mandamus against their fellow council members alleging they willfully disregarded their statutory duty.
Loudoun Now

South Hill Mayor Dean Marion announced the resignation of long-time Town Manager Kim Callis Monday night. Marion read Callis’ resignation letter at the start of the monthly meeting of South Hill Town Council. Rumors of Callis’ pending departure from his post have circulated around town for months, since new council members Ashley Hardee and Mike Smith were elected to the governing body in November. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a person with knowledge of the situation said the town had been in negotiations with Callis for some time. The talks were precipitated by a letter received in January from attorneys representing Callis that claimed he had been the target of harassment and abuse from Council members. A second letter also sent on behalf of Callis was a Freedom of Information Act request seeking a copy of Callis’ personnel records and employment file as well as all correspondence from any Council member related to him or his employment.
News & Record

Citizens for Fauquier County, a Warrenton-based conservation advocacy group, and 10 town residents filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to overturn the town council’s approval of an Amazon Web Services data center at the northeastern gateway to the town.  It argues that “in its pell-mell rush to secure the investment of Amazon, one of the world's richest companies, the town council ran roughshod over numerous state and local zoning and planning requirements” and adopted an "approve first, investigate later" approach to granting the special use permit (SUP) that Amazon needed to build in the town.  Meanwhile, it says that Amazon did barely the minimum required for its application, failing to submit many of the 11 items and 32 particular factors requested by town staffers.  “Confident that it had the votes in the council, whose members it met with individually to avoid the requirements of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Amazon made no attempt to satisfy many of these requirements,” the complaint states. 
Fauquier Times

stories of national interest

A bill that would change Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act to make it easier for local elected officials to meet outside of the public viewwas defeated in committee Wednesday. House Bill 1610 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, would have amended the open meetings portion of the the state’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, to apply only if there were a quorum present. A minimum quorum is the number of board members needed to be present to take action and differs from body to body. Bentley said the change was needed to make it easier for local lawmakers to meet to conduct business, and said it would put Arkansas’ Sunshine Law in line with how 47 other states regulate public meetings.
Arkansas Online
(Note: When VCOG researched this issue in 2022, we found 29 states defined their meetings as being a quorum. Nine say it's a majority of the members (which is often the same as a quorum), 4 defined it differently depending on the action being taken, 5 (including Virginia) say 3 or or even 2 make a meeting, and 4 were either undefined or unclear. (The totals include D.C.)

The town of Hamlin, Connecticut, has admitted to a technical violation of the Freedom of Information Act in connection with last year’s controversial destruction of Hamden Police Department documents, some of which were responsive to a public records request. In exchange for that admission, Daniel Dunn, a member of the Hamden Police Commission, waived his right to question Hamden police officers before the Freedom of Information Commission, according to an email from his attorney, Joseph Sastre. Meanwhile, nearly a year after the scandal, the town has yet to release a report on the results of a probe into how the records destruction unfolded.
New Haven Register


editorials & columns

"'Transparency' is one of those words that modern spin control has largely rendered meaningless. Everyone claims to be transparent and those who claim it loudest are often those who practice it least."

“Transparency” is one of those words that modern spin control has largely rendered meaningless. Everyone claims to be transparent and those who claim it loudest are often those who practice it least. We believe open government has three key components: 1) Decisions made by elected officials and bureaucrats that impact the people they serve – that is, all of their decisions – should be conducted in the open with robust public input. 2) Freedom of Information Act requests should be complied with fully and promptly, with redactions limited to legally protected information. 3) Public employees should be readily available to talk with the media and residents about their jobs without fear of reprisal. Virginia gets a middling grade on all three counts, particularly when compared with states like Pennsylvania that have an open government enforcement agency with teeth. Virginia is well-served by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government,, and the Virginia Press Association,, both of which are resources for information on open government laws and lawsuits. Both nonprofits also have limited staffs, and could do even more with tax-deductible contributions from concerned residents.
Alexandria Times
(Note: The piece quotes The Washington Post slogan of "Democracy dies in darkness." That quote is slightly modified from the original source, former U.S. District Judge Damon Keith, writing in the opinion Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft in 2002: "Democracies die behind closed doors." Read more about Judge Keith here.

What can be done to make access happen at agencies on a timelier basis? Again, the e-discovery experience is illuminating.  A form of machine learning, known as “technology assisted review,” is now routinely used by lawyers in the private sector in large, complex cases both to (i) search through hundreds of terabytes of corporate records, and (ii) filter records for possible withholding under grounds of privilege. Lawyers in general counsel offices at some government agencies already are familiar with and employ this form of advanced search method to greatly reduce the time it takes to find responsive records in litigation; however, few FOIA offices are using this type of software at present. Additionally, practical AI tools are just around the corner that may be able to do a good job of assisting in segregating at least some types of FOIA exempt material in documents, a development that hopefully will soon make review by FOIA staff and attorneys much more efficient. 
Jason R. Baron, Americans for Prosperity

Even if you despise the media, you should be rooting for more government transparency. Some of the worst journalism happens when no one has hard evidence one way or another and the only sources are government press releases and anonymous officials. Take for example the months of speculation surrounding the death of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, all of which was enabled by erroneous government statements and the fact that Capitol Police records and autopsy reports were confidential. As I wrote then, "In a vacuum of primary sources, bullshit will prevail. If you want faster, more accurate reporting, demand better public record laws and more transparency from officials."
C.J. Ciaramella, Reason

Legislation that empowers citizens and the free press to access public records is vital. If total control over information is one of the pillars of authoritarian government, then every step away from that kind of information monopoly is a move toward freedom. In a democratic system where the people choose their leaders, we have a right to know if those leaders are properly using the power entrusted to them. Yet, the temptation toward secrecy is ever present among public officials and government functionaries. It is simple human nature to prefer working behind closed doors rather than out in the open where critics are ready to pounce.Public officials in a democracy need to fight that inclination, but even the best of them often fail in that effort. That is why legislation that empowers citizens and the free press, such as the Freedom of Information Act and, in this state, the 50-year-old Public Records Act, is so vital. They are the tools people can use to pry open closed doors and unlock secrets that need to be revealed.
The Seattle Times