Transparency News, 3/29/21


 March 29, 2021
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state & local news stories
“It’s really a tremendous amount of interest and participation in the meetings — participation in the sense of just listening to what’s going on.” 
Judge Adrianne Bennett, as chairwoman of the Virginia Parole Board, unilaterally released more than 100 parolees from Virginia Department of Corrections supervision in violation of long-standing rules, according to records obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The criteria she used to make her decisions are unclear. According to emails obtained by The Times-Dispatch, Bennett told an administrative assistant at the parole board that she wanted to discharge from supervision as many parolees as she could in the days before her April 15 departure. The General Assembly had elected her as a judge in Virginia Beach. Bennett, through her attorney Jeffrey Breit, declined to comment for this story. Breit said they would wait until a new investigation is done.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Angel Pilkey was in for a surprise when he started his term as a student representative on the Albemarle County School Board. “It was very eye-opening to see how complex and how difficult and always changing a decision this big can be with new information,” said Pilkey, one of four students who are serving as the first student representatives to the board this school year. “All of them that sat on the board really had some good ideas, and they provided great input,” board chairman Graham Paige said. “They really lived up to our expectations. It was really a good plan to bring a student rep on board.” Then-board chairman Jonno Alcaro said the students brought a different perspective to the board than those that board members usually get. “We normally don’t have students that give public comments,” Alcaro said.
The Daily Progress

Viewership of online local school board meetings has routinely reached into the thousands throughout the past year — a trend that school board leaders say could be attributable to the meetings’ virtual format or to the hotly-debated issues being discussed.  The Albemarle County School Board meetings prior to last March usually garnered 30 attendees, Board Chair Graham Paige estimated. Since the meetings moved to Zoom, attendance has tipped into the thousands.  “It’s really a tremendous amount of interest and participation in the meetings — participation in the sense of just listening to what’s going on,” Paige said.  Charlottesville School Board Chair Lisa Larson-Torres said that she’s likewise noticed increased public comment from community members and teachers. The division’s Facebook livestreams of the board meetings have brought in between 1,500 and 3,000 viewers each month since moving online. 
Cville Tomorrow

The Norfolk City Council kicked at least three public housing residents off an official city advisory committee on the massive St. Paul’s redevelopment, leaving just two seats on the 16-member body for those most directly affected. It also left one of those residents questioning whether his removal was retaliation for public criticism of how the city is handling some parts of the project. City officials say there was no connection. Pledger said he wasn’t told anything about his term being up until he got a letter dated March 18, the day after he appeared on a BET documentary from Soledad O’Brien that was sharply critical of Norfolk’s handling of the redevelopment. Councilwoman Danica Royster said Pledger was given the full information about his appointment when he first took the seat, including the end date of his three-year term. Typically, City Clerk Allan Bull said he would immediately call board and commission members who had not been reappointed to let them know. Bull said he was told Royster wanted to handle the St. Paul’s committee members herself.
The Virginian-Pilot
stories from around the country
“GAO’s review of annual FOIA data found that 25 of 118 agencies reported zero proactive disclosures in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.”

Federal agencies have been slow to carry out a 2016 change in the Freedom of Information Act requiring them to proactively disclose certain records that would be releasable under that law, GAO has said. That law required agencies to make public in an electronic format any records that have been released in response to a FOIA request and requested three or more times; final opinions in certain adjudicatory cases; statements of policy and interpretations which have been adopted by the agency but not published in the Federal Register; and administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public, among others. “GAO’s review of annual FOIA data found that 25 of 118 agencies reported zero proactive disclosures in fiscal years 2018 and 2019,” a report said.

As town meetings go, the discussion was fairly routine, meandering from what Memorial Day celebrations might look like in the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, to a federal grant application for bulletproof vests for police officers. But when the time came for the trustees in West Chester Township, Ohio, to deliver personal remarks at the group’s most recent meeting, the board’s chairman, Lee Wong, who is Asian-American, did something unusual. Mr. Wong removed his suit jacket and his tie and unbuttoned his dress shirt, according to a video of the board’s March 23 meeting, which has since drawn widespread attention. Then, he lifted his undershirt, revealing scars on his chest that he said he got while serving in the U.S. Army. “Here is my proof,” he said. “Now is this patriot enough? I’m not ashamed to walk around anymore. Before I was inhibited. People looked at me strange.” About halfway through the board’s meeting, Mr. Wong said he would depart from protocol and had something that he wanted to share.
The New York Times

Depew (New York) officials are citing two investigations of State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski as reasons for the village refusing a Buffalo News appeal to release videos of him being struck by a freight train on Feb. 28. A portion of one of the videos shows the judge approaching the train. This video was aired Monday by WIVB-TV after it obtained a copy of it from the man who shot it on his cellphone. Depew Village Attorney Samuel A. Alba said Tuesday that Michalski, who survived, is the subject of two ongoing investigations. He declined to disclose who is investigating Michalski but said he believes the investigations are not criminal. The state Freedom of Information Law allows government agencies to withhold records that are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed, would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.
The Buffalo News

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office has refused to release all messages he sent or received while in Washington for the pro-Donald Trump rally on Jan. 6, according to KVUE's media partners at the Austin American-Statesman. Shortly after Donald Trump spoke at the rally, supporters sieged the U.S. Capitol. Paxton was one of many political officials in attendance and spoke that day. The Austin American-Statesman, along with several other news organizations in Texas, has requested copies of the attorney general's work-related communications, the Austin-based newspaper reported. The Statesman, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have collaborated on obtaining these emails and text messages, but Paxton's office has refused to release them, according to the Statesman. Paxton's duty as Texas attorney general is to oversee an office of lawyers who determine which records are public or confidential under the law. So, whenever public records requests are sent to governmental entities – such as police departments or the governor’s office – they may seek Paxton's office for approval to withhold records from the public.

The city of Ann Arbor (Michigan) refused to release police records earlier this year about a domestic violence incident involving former state Sen. Mitch Irwin and City Council Member Jen Eyer, saying it would be an invasion of privacy. The Ann Arbor News/MLive is now appealing the city’s denial under the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that the city should have provided a version of the January police report and 911 call log with private information redacted. While the state’s FOIA law allows a public body to withhold certain private information, FOIA requires separating the exempt material from the non-exempt, said Robin Luce Herrmann, an attorney for the Michigan Press Association. City Attorney Stephen Postema defended the city’s decision to keep the records hidden. “Domestic violence matters require particular sensitivity and need for privacy,” he said in a statement.


editorials & opinion
"Let’s adopt a 'both-and' approach: 'people in the physical room' public hearings ... and digital tools to connect and provide access for people to join and participate from their homes."

The report on the Virginia Beach Municipal Center shooting, done by the security risk management firm Hillard Heintze and available at the city’s website, provides a minute-by-minute accounting, beginning with the shooter’s resignation letter in the morning through his rampage outside and inside Building 2, to his capture by responding law enforcement and death from shots fired by police. The revised timeline mirrors one pieced together by Pilot reporters in December 2019. The report makes no mention of whether there was a hostile work environment at the city, which Hillard Heintze said would be a focus of its investigation. Virginia Beach has conducted employee surveys and made other efforts to address those concerns, but its absence in the report is notable. Sadly, that means the community is left to wonder what went so terribly wrong for this man that he chose to carry out this attack and rob our community of so many cherished lives, taking them from their spouses, children, loved ones and friends.
The Virginian-Pilot

During the COVID-19 crisis, many federal and state agencies, legislatures and city councils have understandably switched to holding public hearings via Zoom or over Skype, Hangouts, Teams and other videoconferencing platforms. That might be “acceptable as necessity” during this extraordinary pandemic, but shouldn’t become the “new normal” when the pandemic is behind us. Let’s face it: Video-only hearings are just not as good as in-person, face-to-face public hearings and engagement. When people are physically present in the room with public officials and directly connecting with them, it’s a different dynamic than when people are muted on Zoom — and sometimes not even on camera — and have to type in a question. When agency decision-makers actually see 100 people face-to-face in a meeting room, it matters. There is a win-win solution here. Let’s adopt a “both-and” approach: “people in the physical room” public hearings that enable robust public engagement with agency decision-makers, and digital tools to connect and provide access for people to join and participate from their homes. These tools can complement and improve public hearings and participation.
Howard A. Learner, Governing

No matter your views on the Yellow Finch tree-sits, please consider the Montgomery County and Virginia State police/ government prohibition of press access to a several mile radius of the tree sitter extraction operation on private rural property for two days this week, and why and how that was allowed to happen. Many legal observers were also prohibited. At least three government officials — a Montgomery County prosecutor, a Montgomery County supervisor and a Roanoke state legislator — were afforded access by police to observe the site, on private property, swarmed with police in tactical gear and a massive crane and earthmover extraction operation, but the press was denied.
Roberta Bondurant, The Roanoke Times