Transparency News, 4/2/20


April 2, 2020
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state & local news stories
How did your locality adapt their public meetings in light of the governor's emergency order? Check out VCOG's compilation.
Governing board members at the University of Virginia chose to go into closed session this week to discuss the university's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Monday meeting was done by telephone because Virginia is under a state of emergency. But almost the entirety of the meeting was done in closed session. University spokesman Brian Coy said the school has provided volumes of information on its website at about how the university is responding to the pandemic. But he said the board needed to hold its meeting in closed session because "there were series of topics that were not appropriate for those venues to brief the board on." The College of William & Mary's governing board executive committee held an emergency meeting Monday online and after a public session, went into a closed session for further discussion about the coronavirus response. Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors held a meeting online the week before and kept the entire meeting open.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Aside from staff and the Board of Supervisors, no one showed for the Spotsylvania County fiscal year 2021 budget public hearing Tuesday evening. But the meeting still went on as scheduled as county officials and residents adjust to life during the COVID-19 virus pandemic. The county held the hearing because it is required before the board approves the budget, tax rates and the 2021–2025 capital improvement program. The supervisors sat at a table on the stage of Courtland High School’s auditorium looking at a sea of empty blue seats while listening to County Administrator Ed Petrovitch and another staff member read comments from 39 county residents.
Free Lance-Star

Just over three months ago, the Suffolk City Council held regular meetings that were filled to capacity and overflowed into the hallway of City Hall. So it was a surreal moment Tuesday afternoon to see social distancing measures implemented for council’s special meeting to vote on measures related to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of council members sitting next to one another, there was an extra space left between them. And instead of City Manager Patrick Roberts, City Attorney Helivi Holland and Police Chief Thomas Bennett sitting in their normal spots, Roberts and Holland sat in front of the podium reserved for staff presentations and public speakers, while Bennett stood between his normal spot and the public seating. Members of the public were not allowed to sit in the first three rows, and blue tape marked the seats where people were allowed to sit. The chamber was also disinfected and cleaned both before and after the meeting.
Suffolk News-Herald

Under normal circumstances, lawmakers would be preparing to head back to Richmond in a few weeks to consider actions taken by the governor on all the legislation they passed this year. But this year may end up being different.
Virginia Public Radio

Winchester City Council has decided it does not want to be involved with the hiring and firing of city department heads. The issue was first brought up for consideration after Winchester Fire and Rescue Chief William A. Garrett was temporarily suspended from duty in late November by then-City Manager Eden Freeman. Garrett protested Freeman’s decision and asked City Council to review his case. At that time, the only city department head whose hiring and firing could be reviewed by council was the police chief. Rather than extending the appeal option to the fire and rescue chief, council voted 8-1 Tuesday to remove itself from any personnel decisions involving department heads, including the police chief. Among other things, the new bylaws forbid council members from discussing or sharing information regarding city personnel decisions with the media. Violators can be censured by a majority vote of council, but censuring is merely a public reprimand with no impact on a councilor’s ability to participate in meetings or vote on issues. It is not clear if council Vice President Evan Clark was involved in the following discussions. Clark was participating in the meeting and work session via conference call, but his connection may have been terminated because he stopped responding to questions. As a result, the vote totals listed below assume that Clark was not involved.
The Winchester Star
stories of national interest
Citing unprecedented challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic, city officials across California are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to suspend or delay numerous state laws, saying they’re unable to comply with everything from environmental regulations to public records laws that give people a window into how the government is spending public money. Noting that city resources and personnel are stretched thin responding to the pandemic, the executive director of the League of California Cities asked Newsom last week to “take immediate action to pause certain statutory requirements.” The league that represents nearly 500 cities is seeking to delay the state’s constitutionally mandated California Public Records Act, which requires transparency in government decision-making and spending. The law requires public agencies to respond to requests for information within 10 days, though many routinely take advantage of legally allowed extensions. Spokeswoman Kayla Woods said the group is not seeking to suspend all public records requests, but wants “flexibility to cities if their ability to respond to certain PRA requests is limited due to decreased staffing or closure of city facilities.” She said the delay would be limited to records requests “other than those created during, and relating to, the COVID-19 crisis.”
The Washington Post


editorials & columns
The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia changed Thomas Jefferson’s thinking. Always anti-urban in his social outlook, the future president now began to formulate a radical plan for the development of new states and new communities west of the Appalachian mountains. In an age before antibiotics and systematic vaccination, Jefferson sought to design healthier communities on the tabula rasa, the blank slate, of the American heartland. Some but not all of Jefferson’s ideas were adopted as the American frontier moved west.