Transparency News, 3/31/21

March 31, 2021

state & local news stories

“The commission’s idea of advertising is inconspicuously updating the ‘Meetings and Hearings’ tab on its website — effectively invisible to anyone disconnected from civil rights groups and progressive organizations. This is not what Virginians voted for."

The Virginia Department of Elections plans to carry out elections for the House of Delegates based on existing political maps, as census delays push redistricting work into the fall. Elections Commissioner Chris Piper’s comments came hours after Virginia’s newly formed redistricting commission agreed during a meeting on a timeline for redrawing the state’s House of Delegates map over a 45-day period starting in mid-August. On Tuesday, several advocacy groups and public commenters urged the redistricting commission to be more transparent about its work, and improve how it communicates with the public. In a Medium post, Erin Corbett of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table urged the commission to schedule meetings during non-working hours, improve how it advertises its meetings and offer its materials in different languages. Tuesday’s meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m., at a working hour for many Virginians. “The commission’s idea of advertising is inconspicuously updating the ‘Meetings and Hearings’ tab on its website — effectively invisible to anyone disconnected from civil rights groups and progressive organizations,” Corbett wrote. “This is not what Virginians voted for.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
(NOTE: VCOG's board president, Jeff South, was one of those speakers urging broad-based transparency.)

After repeated denials, the Virginia State Police last week admitted that some of their detectives used a controversial facial recognition program during criminal investigations. Last year, State Police told The Virginian-Pilot at least three times that it had never used Clearview AI — or any other facial recognition technology — and had no plans to. The Pilot also used the state’s public records laws to request emails sent between State Police employees and Clearview, which should have picked up messages the company typically sends to newly registered users. The agency turned over no such emails.And in February of this year, a lawmaker said the governor’s top public safety adviser told her State Police were not using Clearview and never had. Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, said Brian Moran, the secretary of public safety and homeland security, gave her that assurance Feb. 9. But it wasn’t true. On Friday, after another question from The Pilot, State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller confirmed four investigators had used Clearview with free trial accounts for five months, from September 2019 through February 2020. Two other investigators signed up for accounts but never used them. Supervisors didn’t know investigators were using Clearview, Geller said. Only in February 2020 when one of them asked a supervisor about buying a license did it come to light. That supervisor discovered the six accounts and canceled them immediately.
The Virginian-Pilot

Two Claremont women say they were barred from attending a special called Town Council meeting March 20 for not wearing face masks. Donna Skinner says she and Dianna Strickland both have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks, and were wearing face shields instead when Mayor George Edwards and Councilman Dale Perkinson would not let them inside Claremont’s Town Center. Skinner sees the council’s recent mask mandate — issued nearly a year after Gov. Ralph Northam declared COVID-19 a public health emergency — as retaliation and a deliberate attempt to keep her and Strickland out. “They haven’t been wearing masks either until February,” Skinner said. “They didn’t start enforcing anything regarding COVID until February.” “While I believe governments can make a rule under emergency conditions that require wearing a mask, I also think those rules should be implemented with alternatives so that people are not unreasonably kept from observing meetings of a public body,” added Megan Rhyne, director of the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
The Smithfield Times


stories from around the country

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a broad non-disclosure agreement that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign required employees to sign is unenforceable. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Gardephe’s ruling generally steered clear of the constitutional issues presented by such agreements in the context of political campaigns. Instead, the judge — an appointee of President George W. Bush — said the sweeping, boilerplate language the campaign compelled employees to sign was so vague that the agreement was invalid under New York contract law. Gardephe’s 36-page decision said a non-disparagement clause in the agreement was similarly flawed.

The Washoe County (Nevada) School District Police escorted one person out of Tuesday's school board meeting for refusing to wear a mask.  Two more people left when asked to put one on during public comment that lasted for hours.   Nearly 100 people spoke during public comment period, which finished after 6 p.m.  Public comment can also be heard after each agenda item. The board is on a dinner break and expected to return at 6:50 p.m.
Reno Gazette Journal

Records in 25 New Jersey towns show that police officers took annual payments for unused sick days despite a law forbidding the practice. The payments add up to nearly half a million dollars from 2017 through 2019. To identify the towns where police officers received payouts for unused sick time before retirement, a reporter requested records from hundreds of towns. The review did not include a look at records for public employees other than police, or for every township in the state. A reporter reached out to officials in all 25 towns where pre-retirement sick time payouts were identified. Some agreed the payments were improper and said that the reporter’s inquiry brought the issue to their attention. Three said they’d change their contracts, and two said they’d ask for the money back.

editorials & opinion

FOIA was not written for journalists, but for all Virginians, and it is most often used by non-journalists trying to obtain information. An effort had to be made to bring a cross section of Virginians to the table to continually demand governmental transparency. What was needed was a coalition of various interest groups and individuals that could more effectively press to keep government in the sunshine. The timing was right. Newspapers were still financially strong and there was funding available from groups such the Knight Endowment to help fund transparency movements. There were also key players available. Forrest “Frosty” Landon had just stepped down as VPA president and was planning to retire from his job as executive editor of the Roanoke Times. Frosty was one of the state’s most articulate and outspoken advocates of FOIA. It was he, more than anyone else, who drove the concept of a statewide coalition. A committee that I had the honor of chairing was cobbled together with representatives from VPA, the Virginia Association of Broadcasters and key newspapers and television stations. A short time later, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government was created. Frosty, by then fully retired, was hired as the organization’s founding director. He put the coalition together by relying on models around the country as well as his own creative mind. He would later be succeeded by Megan Rhyne, who has been the respected voice of VCOG for better than two decades and remains its director.
The Smithfield Times