Transparency News 4/16/15

Thursday, April 16, 2015

State and Local Stories

Transparency Virginia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan legislative watchdog group, on Tuesday released a report highlighting “murky practices” and “disturbing” findings from the 2015 General Assembly session with regard to unrecorded votes and short notices for committee meetings. The principal author of the report, Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the system is devised for insiders and “the short sessions and the rapid-fire scheduling of committee meetings undermine participation by and accountability to the citizens of Virginia.”

Del. Randy Minchew (R-10th), though he hadn't yet reviewed the [Transparency Virginia] report, said he believes every vote taken by him or his colleagues should be made known to the public. Minchew said he thinks certain votes haven't been recorded, or taken strictly as voice vote, because of past traditions in the legislature. "As Virginians, we treasure our tradition,” Minchew said. “But there is now a need for more transparency … It's my view that every vote in subcommittees should be recorded.” Democratic Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-34th) agreed. She provided the Times-Mirror a statement following the report's release criticizing the practice of holding unrecorded votes. "Right now, today, a bill can die in committee with no discussion and no recorded vote," Murphy said. "It is that simple, and it isn’t right. Voters can’t hold their elected officials accountable if they don’t know where they stand on important issues, even those issues before committees. Unfortunately, I experienced this first hand last year, when I sponsored a common sense proposal to keep our communities safe. It never made it out of committee and no Delegate took a recorded vote." It's important the LIS system and dockets are accurate, said state Sen. Jill Vogel (R-27th) not only for constituents and the media, but also for the lawmakers themselves. Vogel said she and her colleagues rely on LIS to keep track of their legislation. Transparency is always important for the public, she said, but "we demand transparency so we can move our legislation."
Loudoun Times-Mirror

The Virginia General Assembly will head into overtime again with a familiar culprit to blame: ethics reform. The legislature's second crack at reforms in as many years wasn't quite ready for a final vote Wednesday night, due to concerns about a missing word or two in one of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's amendments. The issue, and disagreements over a few other high-profile bills, delayed the assembly's annual veto session for several hours.
Daily Press

Visiting the General Assembly on the first day of its reconvened session in Richmond, three members of University of Virginia Students United met with legislators Wednesday to advocate for the group’s current priorities. Among those priorities is improving communication between students and the university’s board of visitors, said Students United organizer and second-year student Nqobile Mthethwa. “We don’t have a formal avenue of communications with them,” she said. By instituting a public comment period at the board of visitors’ meetings, Mthethwa said students would “have an opportunity to talk to the board about concerns they have.”
Daily Progress

Tempers flared and voices were raised at last Tuesday’s Madison County Board of Supervisors meeting during a heated discussion regarding the display of the national motto “In God We Trust” in the Madison County Supervisors’ chambers.
Madison Eagle

National Stories

Police departments across the nation are implementing body-worn camera programs in an effort to create a more objective record of officers’ activities. As recent news events have proved, these videos can provide crucial information about what transpired in a situation. Gaining access to bodycam videos, however, is proving to be an uncertain and challenging endeavor for journalists. Many police departments are adopting bodycams before creating policies or procedures for compliance with open records laws, leading to erratic disclosure between jurisdictions and cases.

Federal officials are reviewing the online publication of personal information related to former and current officials with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, a federal law enforcement official said Wednesday. en culled from social media and other publicly available sources, though investigators are attempting to determine if any of the material was accessed illegally, said the official, who is not authorized to comment publicly. The incident was first reported by CBS News, which attributed the posting to an apparent anti-government group that referred to the officials as "traitors.''
USA Today

If, as predicted, the tough fiscal times for state and local governments don't end anytime soon, the pressure to embrace innovation will increase. A New Orleans plan that uses data analytics to identify structures that are most vulnerable to fires and distribute smoke alarms to their residents is an example of how local leaders can find ways to do more with less.


If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck. That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated. The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually. It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.
Peter Galuszka, Bacon’s Rebellion

A new report from Transparency Virginia reveals just how poorly the General Assembly does when it comes to keeping the public informed. In briefest summary, the report finds that meetings often are held on an impromptu basis, denying citizens the chance to attend, and bills are dispatched without recorded votes, denying citizens the opportunity to hold the voters accountable. Some of the figures in the report are stunning. This year the House of Delegates killed 76 percent of all bills and resolutions without a recorded vote. Its Rules Committee killed 95 percent that way; the Appropriations Committee killed 89 percent that way, and so did the Commerce and Labor Committee. (The state Senate killed far fewer measures by unrecorded vote.) If they cared more about openness in government, they would fix the conditions that have caused the problem.

I often wonder about the rhetoric emanating from General Assembly members. Do they really mean what they mouth? Do the 140 legislators know how hypocritical they sound, or that actions speak much louder? Here's the reason for my latest rant: The State Board of Elections announced Tuesday that 30 localities must immediately stop using their WINVote touch-screen systems. The board cited concerns about security. State officials had investigated voting equipment after numerous reports of problems on Election Day in November. You would think state legislators would work quickly to lessen the electoral burden on local governments. And you'd be delusional.
Roger Chesley, Virginian-Pilot

How do you keep tabs on federal agencies amassing mountains of secret data?
Secretly, of course.
 And, no, that’s not a punch line. Government’s surveillance of the public is no joke. Congress is at least trying to get a handle on the endlessly proliferating masses of data that alphabet-soup agencies are collecting on friends and foe alike, at home and abroad. How many such agencies and programs exist? “Hundreds,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein. So many that Congress can’t even name them all. The first step is finding them and listing them.
Daily Progress