Transparency News, 4/12/21


 April 12, 2021
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state & local news stories
"Will this be the last chance I have to call in for a city council meeting?" she asked in a frail voice.
Staunton City Council cut the cord on its citizens, eliminating the public's ability to call in and speak during hearings and matters from the public in upcoming meetings. The decision resulted in an uproar from council members and citizens alike on Thursday evening. City council voted 4-3 to repeal the Emergency Uncodified Ordinance, which had allowed the city council members to attend meetings virtually. It will also kill the opportunity for citizens to call in during public hearings and matters of the public.  It wasn't entirely clear that repealing the emergency ordinance would also cut citizen's access to council meetings through phone calls until the vote was already decided. One caller had a question for the council.  "Will this be the last chance I have to call in for a city council meeting?" she asked in a frail voice. Her question was met with a long pause of silence.
News Leader

A Norfolk judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by former Portsmouth City Attorney Solomon Ashby against former Mayor John Rowe, saying he considers the alleged defamation a mischaracterization of legal advice. In September, former City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton placed Angela Greene on administrative leave after the then-police chief filed controversial charges against prominent Black leaders in the aftermath of the destruction and defacement of Portsmouth’s Confederate monument. The council sought advice from Ashby regarding Pettis Patton’s employment.  Rowe referred to an email in which Ashby advised council members to “resist any inclination to act in a manner that may be in violation of the law” as they considered firing Pettis Patton. Rowe claimed Ashby advised council members they could not fire Pettis Patton and “the city manager is bulletproof.” Rowe described that as “not very balanced and good advice.” Ashby said that was a mischaracterization of his advice — he said the council should not fire Pettis Patton, not that the council could not fire her. Judge Everett A. Martin Jr. agreed with Ashby that Rowe mischaracterized the attorney’s advice. He did not agree with Ashby’s assertion that the mayor’s public criticism damaged his reputation, causing “great humiliation, shame, vilification, exposure to public infamy, scandal, and disgrace.”
The Virginian-Pilot

Angela Greene, who was fired last year as Portsmouth police chief after approving criminal charges against a slew of high-profile Black officials — allegations that were later dismissed — filed a long-expected lawsuit against the city Friday. She alleges she was wrongly fired and that multiple officials defamed her in public comments. Greene alleges in the complaint that several people defamed her after the criminal charges were filed [against State Senator Louise Lucas] by, among other things, calling her actions racist and disobeyed her boss, the city manager.
The Virginian-Pilot

Parents in Giles County are speaking out after teachers at Macy McClaugherty Elementary School allegedly sent insensitive messages about their students. Drew Simmons and his family have lived in Giles County their entire lives, so sending their daughter to school there was a no-brainer. “I’ve always taught my child goes to school you respect your teachers you do your work, do your best, be kind,” Jennifer Simmons said. Documents Jennifer says she obtained under the Freedom of Information Act allegedly show that in a school division instant messenger, her daughter’s teachers referred to her as a “red-headed demon” and made other comments about her daughter’s weight.
stories from around the country
"When you get a FOIA request, the first thing you think of is, ‘OK, what do we have that’s responsive?’ not, ‘Do we have to give up these records?’” said attorney Sarah Pratt, Illinois' current public access counselor. 
Citizens who exercise their lawful right to obtain public documents through FOIA requests frequently complain that the government is failing to uphold its end of the statute. It can sometimes take weeks or months of persistently following up to get a response on even a run-of-the-mill request. However, the people on the other end of the process, the ones who have to produce the records, say responding to FOIA requests can be challenging, especially for small staffs. For one thing, the documents are often physically stored somewhere in a vast sea of boxes. However, making FOIA less of a slog in Illinois is not solely about solving logistical obstacles. Lawyers and open-government advocates say there are wider cultural challenges about how FOIA requests are perceived within agencies across the state — a problem far harder to address. “I’ve preached to public bodies again and again: When you get a FOIA request, the first thing you think of is, ‘OK, what do we have that’s responsive?’ not, ‘Do we have to give up these records?’” said attorney Sarah Pratt, the state’s current public access counselor. 
Chicago Tribune

The University of South Carolina is changing how it handles public records requests following several lawsuits against the school in recent years. In January, USC hired a Freedom of Information Act coordinator and plans to create an online open records portal “to make it easier for people to file and track their requests,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said in an email. “We believe having a dedicated resource for responding to Freedom of Information requests will better ensure consistency, timeliness and provide greater public transparency,” Stensland said.
The State

An Arkansas circuit judge last week ordered the Arkansas State Police to turn over a collection of uniformed trooper photographs to a Little Rock blogger who frequently criticizes the police. Special Judge William Wright, substituting for Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray, brushed aside arguments from state lawyers that providing the photographs would be illegal because of a provision in the law that protects the identities of undercover officers. Wright noted that the law shields only "current" undercover officers. If the Legislature had wanted those protections to extend to every police officer who might work undercover, lawmakers would have written the law that way, Wright said. His ruling is expected to be appealed.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation has agreed to settle its lawsuit against the city after Flint (Michigan) officials released the names and salaries of all employees in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The center, which describes itself as a free-market think tank, filed the lawsuit in Genesee Circuit Court last month after it said it received no response to a FOIA request it filed in January or follow-up correspondence in late February. The FOIA law requires public agencies to respond to requests for information within five business days. “Although it’s disappointing that a lawsuit was necessary to obtain these records, we commend the city of Flint on its efforts to quickly and efficiently resolve this,” Steve Delie, the Mackinac Center’s lead on open government and transparency, said in a statement to MLive-The Flint Journal.

A Morgantown (West Virginia) Police Department employee has sued the City of Morgantown over the release of personal information related to a sexual harassment incident in 2016. The plaintiff, identified as “H.M.” in court documents, is being represented by Toriseva Law. Court documents outline an incident from February 2016, in which H.M. was sexually harassed during a shift briefing. In that incident, a police officer questioned her about having sex with other city employees. The lawsuit states that the incident was handled internally by the police department, and it was resolved to H.M.’s satisfaction. In December 2020, a “non-profit collaborative news site” filed a Freedom of Information Act request for “all materials and records describing and sufficient to show/disclose all allegations of misconduct made and all disciplinary proceedings taken against any officer, employee, or representative of this policing agency,” referring to the Morgantown Police Department, the lawsuit explains. The lawsuit claims that the information related to the sexual harassment was not redacted or obscured prior to being released to the website, thereby identifying H.M. and victimizing her again. 
editorials & opinion
The outside investigator needs to explain why the only person fired so far was Jennifer Moschetti, a senior investigator in Westfall’s office and reportedly the author of the draft report, who was terminated when she sought whistleblower protection. The investigator should also try to determine to what extent Northam and Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran were aware of the board’s actions. And why Attorney General Mark Herring, the state’s top law enforcement official whose office received a copy of the draft report a month before the redacted version was released, didn’t do anything about it. The public is entitled to the whole story, not just part of it.
The Free Lance-Star