Transparency News, 4/26/21


 April 26, 2021
There was no newsletter issued Friday, April 23.


state & local news stories

A 911 call released Friday by authorities indicates the Spotsylvania deputy who shot a 32-year-old county resident multiple times early Wednesday may have mistaken a phone for a gun. A body cam video that accompanied the released 911 call added little to clarify the 911 call. Brown doesn’t show up in the blurry video until he was already on the ground after being shot. Sheriff Roger Harris told the Black Lives Matter contingent that he supports their efforts and strives for accountability and transparency.
The Free Lance-Star

During the virtual event, legislators were given time to update attendees on how the session went from their perspective, share updates on bills they sponsored and answer questions from community members. With senators having the opportunity to meet in person at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond while delegates met behind computer screens, the viewpoints on how work was conducted were not shared among lawmakers. “Every session is different, but this session was more different than any,” Del. Rob Bell said. Bell said conducting business online had its advantages and disadvantages. As a perk, he said, more people were able to testify on certain bills without having to travel to Richmond, but how legislators conduct business was lost. Bell said that while fellow members can be seen on camera, it was impossible to see if anything was happening behind the scenes. “You couldn’t see anyone huddling in a corner working something out,” he said. “There were interactions you didn’t see and that showed up in the work product. We lost the chance to have a proposal, chew on it and that give-and-take that follows.” Runion said meeting virtually made it difficult for the public to participate and engage in the legislative process, adding that he thought it was “bad policy.” Del. Chris Runion said meeting virtually made it difficult for the public to participate and engage in the legislative process, adding that he thought it was “bad policy.” Sen. Emmett Hanger and Sen. Mark Obenshain, who conducted business in person, shared a different perspective on how the session went. Hanger said he was glad the Senate met in person, but the interaction with the House and the exchange of ideas was lost.
Daily News-Record
NOTE: Read Transparency Virginia's 2021 report on legislative transparency, which VCOG's Megan Rhyne authored, for further discussion on the good and bad of the virtual session.

For two hours Friday, citizen Chris Page of Blackstone stood toe-to-toe in a Nottoway courtroom with a partner at one of Virginia’s largest law firms. That attorney, Andrew McRoberts of Sands Anderson in Richmond, offered an admission that Page had been seeking for weeks -- that the Nottoway Board of Supervisors violated Virginia’s Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) when it held a closed session on March 9th before passing a required motion to do so. McRoberts, however, successfully argued that the Board’s violation was “technical” -- not willful.

In light of ongoing budget discussions and proposed tax increases, the Star-Tribune filed a Freedom of Information Act request for salaries of all Pittsylvania County government employees. By law, salaries of local and state government employees earning $10,000 a year or more are public record and must be made available for public inspection. Information sought included the employee’s name, job title or classification, department and salary.
stories from around the country
Current and former Detroit employees involved in an alleged coverup that included intentionally destroying emails will not face criminal charges, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Wednesday, April 21. The investigation involved former Detroit Office of Development and Grants Director Ryan Friedrichs, who’s also the husband of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, as well as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s former Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley.  The investigation, conducted over a year and nine months, found that Friedrichs ordered staff, through his deputy director Sirene Abou-Chakra, to delete emails related to a grant program that was facing public scrutiny.

Are public records truly public if the public can’t afford them? That’s the question Waukesha (Wisconsin) School District parents are asking after filing a series of open records requests; they say the responses gave them sticker shock. Wisconsin law says the government can charge a requester for locating a record if the cost is $50 or more.  This charge does not include postage or paper copies; it is the cost of simply finding the record. A review of the laws throughout the country reveals at least 30 states allow similar charges; some additional states allow a more limited collection of location fees, while at least 14 others do not allow for the charge.
Fox 6 News

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office won’t reveal what it told the Justice Department about COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes, rejecting Freedom of Information requests from The Post and other media outlets — claiming in part that doing so would be an “invasion of personal privacy.” “Please be advised that portions of the records that respond to your request are exempt from disclosure pursuant to Public Officers Law § 87(2)(b) because, if disclosed, would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,'” Jaclyn Clemmer, the governor’s record access officer, wrote in a denial response to The Post.
New York Post

editorials & opinion
While virtual meetings potentially allow for greater participation, they also have some drawbacks. On the plus side, more people can enter a Zoom room than ever could be accommodated in the physical spaces used as meeting halls in both Albemarle County and Charlottesville — even before social distancing mandated reduced capacity. An expansion in meeting attendance is exactly what some officials have witnessed. Virtual meetings also eliminate travel time to and from meeting places. And they remove the need for parents to find child care in order to attend a meeting; parents can multitask while keeping one eye on children and the other on the Zoom meeting. But just as some people can’t get to in-person meetings because they lack transportation or child care, others are shut out from virtual meetings because they lack adequate internet access. So far, we know that citizen attendance at meetings has improved in quantity — but we don’t know whether that has produced an improvement in quality.
The Daily Progress

Opening records to the public can facilitate independent reviews by outside interests to show where problems might have occurred — and whether they were sloppy mistakes, well-intentioned but regrettable errors, or even the result of bias or corruption. The legislation as passed tries to protect details that should be withheld for legitimate reasons, by exempting those that would put someone’s safety at risk, would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy, or would imperil an investigation “in a particularly identifiable manner.” It remains to be seen whether these exemptions will simply become loopholes, employed by police to keep other details secret. But the new law is an improvement over the old. Virginia has moved further toward openness and signaled its endorsement of transparency. Hopefully, police and sheriff’s departments will get the message.
The Daily Progress

As regular readers know, we weren’t big fans of former Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart. He always had his eye on higher office, and his Trump-like style and anti-immigrant rhetoric brought only unwanted attention to our community. When Democrat Ann Wheeler took over as board chair after the 2019 elections, we hoped for a calmer style of leadership. And while anything is calmer than Corey, the divisiveness on the board is worse than ever. And that’s disappointing. The matter came to a head last week when Supervisor Pete Candland, one of three Republicans in the board minority, proposed a resolution that would have prevented the board from voting on significant matters – the budget, land-use issues and the like – after midnight. Seems reasonable enough. Critical votes about the future of our community shouldn’t take place in the wee hours of early morning, when most folks have stopped watching and, for those who are still awake, minds aren’t at their sharpest. Discussion over Candland’s proposal devolved into a debate over Wheeler’s leadership, and – predictably – the idea was defeated on a party-line 5-3 vote. We recognize there are issues upon which Republicans and Democrats will disagree. We also recognize that elections have consequences, and Democrats won control of the board in 2019, fair and square. But many local issues, such as land-use decisions and where to build roads, should not be about party politics.