Transparency News, 3/3/21


 March 3, 2021
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state & local news stories

"Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she wanted to see such details for all the departments and that information should be readily available to the public, and that it shouldn’t need to be requested through the Freedom of Information Act."
Virginia Parole Board Vice Chair Linda Bryant submitted her letter of resignation Saturday, effective March 15, after she was elected to serve as a judge of Chesapeake General District Court in a Senate vote in which eight Republicans declined to back her as questions resurfaced last week about the panel’s decisions. Bryant, who was appointed to the five-member parole board in 2018 and elevated to vice chair last year, is the second member of the panel in less than a year to be elected to serve as a judge. “I and a number of my colleagues chose not to vote [for Bryant],” Sen. Mark Obenshain said. “And my reason for choosing not to vote was the uncertainty and questions swirling around the actions of the parole board and the findings of the inspector general — and not having sufficient information about those findings as they related to all of the members of the parole board.” 
Richmond Times-Dispatch

A spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam said he welcomes an outside investigation into allegations involving the Virginia Parole Board. It remains unclear what form the investigation would take or whether the proposal has enough support among Democratic lawmakers. “The Governor welcomes further outside investigation,” said Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Northam. “We feel strongly that the investigation should not come from the executive branch. We will discuss next steps with legislators.” “Some kind of authorization is required for further action to be taken,” said Luke Priddy, Sen. John Edwards’ chief of staff. Lawmakers could also choose to send the issue to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.That body has experience doing broad reviews of state agencies that involve interviewing staff; it released a mixed assessment of the Office of the Inspector General in 2018. As the debate unfolds over the draft report, the Virginia State Police are investigating how it became public.

Almost 14 months ago, the agency that drafts legislation for the General Assembly lost its leader and the joint committee that sets rules for the legislature gained a new one. But the Joint Rules Committee hasn’t met since Jan. 10, 2020 — the day it adopted a policy banning firearms in the Virginia Capitol and legislative buildings and elected House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, its chair. As a result, Amigo Wade remains acting director of the Virginia Division of Legislative Services, which has borne the brunt of drafting a glut of legislation introduced over four General Assembly sessions — including two special sessions — in just over a year. The stalemate arises from a dispute between the House of Delegates and the Senate over the chairmanship of a joint panelthat always has been led by the House speaker even though it is not a rule set in writing. The disagreement is rooted in an institutional antagonism that transcends political party lines.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

A statewide risk-limiting audit conducted by elections administrators across Virginia has been completed. Virginia Department of Elections Commissioner Christopher Piper made the announcement on Tuesday. According to a release, the audit confirmed that the original count of the votes accurately portrayed the winners of the November General Election. Under state law, the department is required to coordinate an annual audit of ballot scanner machines used across Virginia. It worked with VotingWorks, a nonprofit that assists with these kinds of audits across the country, and all 133 localities in Virginia participated.

Like most white-collar Virginians, state delegates worked from home this year and skipped their usual travel, hotel stays and meals in Richmond. Yet through this year’s legislative session, House members collectively racked up over $800,000 in per diem stipends that are typically used to cover those expenses. The payments have outraged critics who say lawmakers shouldn’t get them through a pandemic that has devastated budgets and upended many lives. House Republicans have said it’s wrong to accept the stipend while working virtually — Virginia Beach Del. Jason Miyares called it a “gross abuse of taxpayer money,” though a House spokeswoman said he took the payments. Three of his Republican colleagues — Kirk Cox, Nick Freitas and Bobby Orrock — have opted out of receiving them. But their Democratic counterparts — who prefer the term “session expenses” — say the money is subject to income taxes this year, as opposed to years past when it was considered nontaxable reimbursement for most lawmakers.
The Virginian-Pilot

As Charlottesville City Council gets ready to dig into the proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, councilors said late Monday they want more information about how the police department spends its $18.9 million budget, which is 9.9% of the proposed spending plan. The 228-page budget document doesn’t provide in-depth detail about how each department spends its funds beyond the cost of salaries and operating expenses. Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she wanted to see such details for all the departments and that information should be readily available to the public, and that it shouldn’t need to be requested through the Freedom of Information Act. Recent record requests by city resident Matthew Gillikin have helped the councilors find out more about the police department’s spending.
The Daily Progress

The Suffolk School Board and the member who sued it — again — have reached a settlement in a second Freedom of Information Act case. Rather than a trial that was supposed to start March 1, Jeremy Capps, an attorney representing the Board, and Kevin Martingayle, representing board member Sherri Story, announced to Suffolk Circuit Court Judge Carl Eason Jr. that they had reached a settlement agreement pending the board’s approval of it at its March 11 meeting. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, other than that the board would “comply with FOIA henceforth,” though both sides agreed to 24 joint stipulations of agreed-upon facts in the case. This second FOIA case centered around an investigative report that resulted from Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III’s hostile work environment complaint against Story, and actions the Board took that Story alleged were in violation of the Act.
Suffolk News-Herald