Transparency News, 3/27/20


March 27, 2020
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state & local news stories
VCOG is compiling a list of how local governments and school districts are responding to the emergency in terms of their public meetings.
The next Danville City Council meeting is scheduled for April 7. If it meets then, it will be its first since council canceled its March 17 regular meeting because of the coronavirus. City staff plans to meet soon to hear guidance from the city attorney on how to hold the next council session. Meetings of other city boards and commissions — which also canceled meetings this month — will be discussed during that meeting as well, he said. Local governments must strike a balance between holding board and council meetings and respecting social distancing and coronavirus safety concerns. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, would not comment on local governing bodies canceling meetings. Her group, however, is keeping an eye on how local governments and school districts are responding, she said. There are a lot of council, board and commission members in general who are in the high-risk category for serious complications if they catch the coronavirus due to their age, she pointed out. The coalition wants them to be safe, but to make sure — however they hold their meetings — the public has access to those proceedings, she said.
Register & Bee

Holding an in-person government meeting during the pandemic presents its own challenges at a time when health experts recommend “social distancing” and staying away from group gatherings to minimize the spread of COVID-19.  Because of public health concerns, Martinsville City Council canceled its meeting also scheduled for Tuesday. The county board meeting went ahead at the Henry County Administration Building as scheduled but with modifications to the agenda, a limited audience and extra safety precautions to reduce the risk of spreading the disease. At the door to the Summerlin meeting room Tuesday, an array of germ-killing supplies offered attendees a squirt of hand sanitizer, a pair of protective gloves, and/or a spray of antibacterial Lysol before entering. Inside, yellow caution tape was used to block off pairs of seats to enforce the “6-foot rule” of distance between people. On the stage, board members were seated farther apart than usual, and County Administrator Tim Hall gave his presentations from a desk at the front of the seating area instead of sitting with the board. Meanwhile, many department heads and support staff from the county who usually attend board meetings were not in the room. Only two members of the public sat in the audience. Government operations are considered “essential services” and therefore not subject to the gathering ban, Hall said. “In an abundance of caution,” however, officials announced the meeting would be limited to 10 attendees. This time, it was filmed to allow a live broadcast in neighboring rooms in case more people showed up.
Martinsville Bulletin

Before the effects of COVID-19 could be seen throughout the United States, Timberville got a head start streaming Town Council meetings live through Facebook. Now, neighboring bodies of government are moving forward similarly. On Wednesday, the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors met for its regularly scheduled meeting to take up the county’s state of emergency, but it wasn’t in a setting the board was used to. With no members of the public in attendance, the board sat in front of a laptop that was streaming the meeting through Zoom. It was the first meeting to be broadcast live and certainly not the last. “We’re going to use Zoom again on April 8 for the budget presentation,” County Administrator Stephen King said. “We expect to allow people to phone-in or video-in through Zoom. We’ll see how that works and use for public hearings, if they can’t be delayed and if the crisis runs for a while.” On short notice, they used a laptop with a webcam the county already owned to make the livestream happen, but it produced a low quality video. With the troubleshooting, King said he and county staff learned to use a higher quality camera next time and make sure the audio is working properly immediately before the meeting. To make those improvements, the county purchased a new webcam that with higher resolution that should produce a better quality picture.
Daily News Record

The Frederick County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a policy that would allow it to conduct meetings with some members participating by phone or other electronic means when they are unable to attend. The policy says a supervisor may participate from a remote location when he or she experiences a personal matter or medical condition or disability that prevents attendance in person. Even with this newly adopted policy, a minimum of four board members is required to be physically present to meet the state code requirement for a quorum. (NOTE: This is existing law)
The Winchester Star

Winchester City Council’s meeting on Tuesday is open to the public, but officials are hoping no one will attend. Rather than risking exposure to the COVID-19 coronavirus, interested citizens are instead encouraged to watch and participate in the meeting online. A media release from Rouss City Hall states the meeting will be streamed live at starting at 6 p.m. Tuesday. An archived video of the session will be shared to the site afterwards. Public hearing statements will be read aloud before council votes on the designated agenda items. General comments not related to public hearings will be entered as part of the meeting’s official record. According to the city’s media release, public comments and hearings “are a time for community members to address council, not to engage in conversation or ask questions.”
The Winchester Star

The great room at the County Administration Building had a different look at Monday’s meeting of the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors, as chairs in the spectator section were spaced at least six feet apart to accommodate the need for social distancing. This lessened the number of chairs available, but no one was inconvenienced as the meeting was only sparsely attended, no doubt due to concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Newly elected supervisor Laura Walters was not present at the meeting because she recently returned from a trip to Mexico. Upon her arrival in the states, she fell ill with what she assumed was a cold. Her doctor instructed her to quarantine herself for two weeks and since that occurred 10 days before Monday’s meeting, she was unable to attend. With the possibility that future public meetings could be postponed, several public hearings were listed on the agenda, none of which elicited any public comment as only directly involved parties were present.
The Southwest Times

Loudoun County officials are in the early stages of preparing to conduct public meetings remotely as the coronavirus continues to push residents into lockdown and social distancing. On Wednesday, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to adopt an emergency ordinance placing temporary changes in deadlines, public meeting and hearing practices and procedures. The action will allow the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals and Board of Equalization to meet and make decisions electronically, according to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet. Advisory boards and commission meetings have been suspended. The meetings are still expected to be broadcast in some fashion.
The Loudoun Times-Mirror

In order to ensure continuity of city government, Alexandria City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that implements procedures around electronic public meetings. All government bodies will now meet exclusively in a teleconference format unless specified otherwise. The ordinance applies not only to city council, but to all boards and commissions.
Alexandria Times

The City of Virginia Beach will give proposals on the fiscal year 2020-2021 budget March 31, and with city buildings closed for coronavirus, the city wants residents to suggest their budget ideas online. They shared a website Thursday where people can tweak the current proposed budget, and submit their own ideas on how taxes and expenditures should look. There's only one rule - the budget has to balance.  They also shared a related website that makes an estimation of what a specific user currently pays in city taxes, and how that money is spent. The city said that Balancing Act website is anonymous, and does not include fees for water, sewer, trash and stormwater in its calculations.
stories of national interest
AMID THE ONGOING COVID-19 OUTBREAK, which by some counts has  infected more than 50 thousand people in the US, shops and restaurants are not the only operations shutting down. Across the country, local, state, and federal agencies have slowed their responses to public records requests to a crawl. While some agencies face tricky logistical challenges because of how records are kept, others have added new barriers that don’t seem directly related to the pandemic.  The FBI has stopped processing electronic records requests, reported BuzzFeed News; now, the bureau requires that requests be sent via postal mail. The State Department has gone further, reporter Jason Leopold found, suspending FOIA operations entirely until further notice. The city of Philadelphia has entered a state of emergency in which all “nonessential” city government operations have been halted, including the processing of public records requests. Other agencies, including the Fresno, California, city government; the Hawaii state Judiciary; the Chicago Police Department; and the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Department of General Services have similarly notified requesters that responses to their requests are on hold indefinitely due to the country’s public health crisis. 
Columbia Journalism Review

As state, federal, and local governments have ramped up an unprecedented response to the coronavirus — issuing executive decrees, taking emergency actions, and spending millions in taxpayer dollars to curb the virus’ spread — many of the offices that enable citizens to scrutinize that activity are grinding to a halt. The pandemic that has transformed life in America is also stymieing public records requests from City Hall to Washington — raising concerns among open-government advocates who say it could enable agencies to skirt transparency laws and operate in the dark. “Agencies need to prioritize their efforts so the main focus is on the coronavirus. Everyone gets that,” said Erik Arneson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. “But you can’t do that stuff in secret and expect the public to have any confidence in your actions.… You don’t want people to be suspicious in times like this. If you can eliminate suspicion, that’s a good thing.” In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation on Friday that eliminates deadlines for records custodians to approve or deny requests. When asked about the impact of his decision, Murphy said it was necessary because the state is dealing with a staffing shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic and is navigating challenges of staff increasingly working from home. Arneson said, his office is reminding agencies that transparency builds trust. He is encouraging them to process requests as best as they can, especially requests related to the coronavirus.
Philadelphia Inquirer

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and administrators at two state health agencies have refused for weeks to disclose the names of long-term care facilities linked to the infection. One home has emerged as a possible outlier: The Atria Willow Wood ALF in Fort Lauderdale has seen the deaths of three residents due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and several other residents or staff members either have tested positive or are awaiting test results. Lincoln Manor, whose positive test was first reported by WPLG Local 10, has had a spotty record with regulators for years. As recently as February, the home was faulted for failing to ensure basic safety protections, and the investigation of a July complaint concluded administrators neglected to reassess a resident’s suitability to remain at the home after he had wandered from the home and ended up at a mental health center. It is impossible to say whether Florida ALFs and nursing homes that have seen positive coronavirus tests among staff or residents are the same homes that have drawn the attention of state inspectors in the past — because the state won’t identify the homes where positive tests have occurred.
"While some agencies face tricky logistical challenges because of how records are kept, others have added new barriers that don’t seem directly related to the pandemic."