Transparency News, 4/14/21


 April 14, 2021
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state & local news stories

The now-viral footage that captured a small-town Virginia police officer pepper spraying a Black man during a routine traffic stop in December gave the public a rare glimpse inside the state’s historically secretive criminal justice system. Virginia law gives police departments a lot of power to hide information from public view, and they often employ it. That means records like the body-camera video showing two Windsor police officers’ treatment of Caron Nazario rarely see the light of day. And even with a recent flurry of new laws aimed at making police more accountable, it’s not clear whether that will change soon. “To be perfectly honest, I was surprised we got the documents,” said Nazario’s attorney, Jonathan Arthur, who has filed a lawsuit against the department alleging it violated Nazario’s constitutional rights. “There are a whole lot of different contours that they can use ... to not turn the documents over.” The Virginia Freedom of Information Act lets police, prosecutors and sheriff’s offices statewide decide whether to release police investigative files — and related photos or videos, such as body-camera footage. But departments almost always say no to all such requests as a matter of policy. A new law, which takes effect July 1, aims to end state law enforcement agencies’ longstanding practice of shielding nearly all their files from the public — whether they are incident reports from the past week or case files that haven’t been looked at in decades.
The Virginian-Pilot

For the first time since December 2019, when Martinsville City Council unanimously voted to seek a change in the status of Martinsville from a city to a town, the word “reversion” was uttered during a Martinsville City Public Schools Board meeting. With the regular agenda complete Monday night, school board member Emily Parker read the obligatory certification of closed session announcement that permits the board members to discuss specific school business in private. But Parker’s reading departed from the words provided in the agenda item details. Instead, she included the discussion of reversion and justified the conversation to be done behind closed doors because of “potential litigation.” That was when City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday approached the board and requested the language be tweaked slightly in order to conform with the legal requirements. The board agreed to the change and voted to adjourn the regular meeting in council chambers and then meet with Monday down the hall for a discussion that was kept from the public.
Martinsville Bulletin

Charlottesville City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to adopt the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, including a provision granting $1,000 allowances to individual city councilors. Mayor Nikuyah Walker was the only councilor to vote no. Walker called the $1,000 figure insignificant. “I use the words authoritarian and paternalistic a lot and I feel that way today,” Walker said. She added that she thinks it is unethical to not pay or compensate community members who participate on boards or panels. Walker submitted a proposal on Monday requesting $10,000 allowances. She requested $3,000 for refreshments and materials for community meetings and panels, $2,500 for constituent outreach including 1:1 meals, $2,000 for grants, $1,000 for refreshments and supplies for the Get Your Healthy On with Mayor Walker program, $500 for youth programs and activities, $500 for printed and electronic materials, and $500 for lunch and materials for mental health and summer reading programs.
The Daily Progress

For the first time in more than a year, the Charlottesville School Board met in-person Tuesday evening for a closed session to review proposals from firms interested in leading the board’s superintendent search. The board is the first elected body in Charlottesville or Albemarle to meet in-person since meetings moved online early in the pandemic. The public portion of the meeting was accessible online via Zoom. Inside the conference room at the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, three portable air filters were set up. Board members wore masks and sat at individual tables. Each table had a bottle of water and hand sanitizer and packets of disinfecting wipes were spread throughout the room.
The Daily Progress

A Special Meeting of the Front Royal Town Council to approve a Resolution requesting that Leach Run Parkway be added to the list of Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) roads eligible for “street maintenance payments” was convened and adjourned within three minutes of its 7 p.m. start Monday evening, April 12.  That business taken care of and the Special Meeting adjourned, council convened its scheduled 12-item work session which quickly adjourned to closed session to discuss four items, including a “specific” personnel matter and a “specific” legal matter, neither of which were specified, respectively, as to department or general topic of legal consideration. Somewhat more detail was specified in the final two closed session items.
Royal Examiner
stories from around the country
The National Freedom of Information Coalition and 38 other organizations signed on to a Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press amicus brief urging the release of records from grand juries convened to investigate the leak of the Pentagon Papers. Federal circuit courts have split on whether district courts can order disclosure of such records. The amicus brief, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, argues the importance of releasing the materials, so the public can gain a more comprehensive understanding. The brief also argues that disclosure of the records is particularly important, given the spike in Espionage Act prosecutions against people who leak government information to the news media.