Transparency News, 4/29/21


 April 29, 2021
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state & local news stories
"A Henry County Sheriff’s Deputy announced the media was welcome to take all the pictures they wanted to, 'but you’re not going inside this building,' he said."
Yesterday, the FOIA Council met to assign three bills referred by the General Assembly to one of two subcommittees.

The meetings subcommittee will consider HB 1997, which seeks to increase the number of members of a board who can talk privately without triggering FOIA. The subcommittee will also consider a fix to deal with a ruling by a Southwest Virginia judge who said that when FOIA says to post notice of a meeting on a public body's "official website" it means only a website with a .gov domain name and no others.

The records subcommittee will consider HB 2196, which seeks to open up access to the disciplinary records of founded complaints of police misconduct. It will also consider HB 2000, which is an attempt to address the increasingly high cost of obtaining records under FOIA.

Get involved in either or both of these subcommittees by signing up for the FOIA Council mailing list.
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Hemp growers were put in handcuffs in their home during a drug raid back in September 2019, and now they have filed a lawsuit against members of the Newport News Police Department. Shardell Gerald and Lamont Burgress showed News 3 security video that captured what happened in their backyard as they said they were answering questions in handcuffs. She was particularly upset, claiming that when one officer left he allegedly told her, "We may be back." “'We may be back?' What? That, to me, was a threat. It sounded like a threat. I took it as a threat,” said Gerald. She said the couple was baffled, traumatized and embarrassed in front of their neighbors. A few days later, Gerald showed News 3 the Freedom of Information Act request she sent to the Newport News Police Department requesting information about the raid, but she was told the case was under investigation and that she was not allowed to have the information.

Aug. 21, 2020, JMU began its fall semester freshman move in. Just over a week later, on Sept. 1, the university officially passed the 500-case mark for COVID-19 cases in its student, faculty and staff body. In the following two weeks, JMU reached a 60% positivity rate in its testing regime — one out of every six COVID-19 tests was coming back positive. Several days before that 500-case mark, Aug. 26, JMU issued a partial denial in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by The Breeze asking for data. As JMU has yet to release the by-location COVID-19 data requested— from before Sept. 17, 2020, and from Dec. 4, 2020, on — The Breeze will continue to pursue that disclosure by the university, and will continue to provide updates on releases of data by the university.
The Breeze

The city of Martinsville’s march to reversion continued Wednesday morning at a building closer to the North Carolina line than the city limits as a designated contingent of representatives from Henry County and the city met at the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre to try to settle their differences. Although it had been announced that the mediation would occur on Wednesday and Thursday, the location and time had not been revealed, and officials with the city and Henry County refused to disclose either. The person serving as mediator has not been identified, but a city official has said that it could be a retired state Supreme Court justice. Neither officials from Martinsville nor Henry County will say what issues -- if any -- they might have agreed upon. A Henry County Sheriff’s Deputy announced the media was welcome to take all the pictures they wanted to, “but you’re not going inside this building,” he said.
Martinsville Bulletin

Just months after an eight-hour meeting to consider a controversial air permit for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board is readying itself for another marathon session to consider granting an air permit to a compressor station that would be built in Chatham as part of a planned offshoot of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.  Consideration of the so-called Lambert compressor station comes as the air board, smarting from a federal judicial rebuke over its issuance of a permit to the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s Union Hill compressor station, has been working to revamp how it approaches public engagement
Virginia Mercury

A recent amendment to state law gives county and town elected and appointed officials more leeway in how often they attend meetings from a remote location for personal reasons. Current law allows officials to participate in meetings electronically just twice per calendar year. After July 1, they will be allowed to do so at 25 percent of each year’s meetings. The amendment does not change the unlimited number of meetings an official can attend remotely for medical reasons. But it adds a provision that officials can also miss in-person meetings if they themselves are not sick, but are caring for a family member who is ill. But the expanded opportunity for remote participation is a concern for the Virginia Press Association and Virginia Coalition for Open Government, which worry about officials’ decreased accountability to the public. “No one forces you to be on a board,” said Betsy Edwards, Virginia Press Association executive director. “You have a certain number of meetings you have to attend. If you can’t, you should resign and let someone else do it. I guess I’m old-fashioned that way.”
The Central Virginian
stories from around the country
A Pasquotank County (North Carolina) judge decided today not to release the body cam videos of Andrew Brown’s shooting by deputies, but left the door open for the footage to be disclosed after the state’s investigation into the fatal incident. Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster did, however, rule that Andrew Brown’s family and one North Carolina attorney could view four body cam videos within the next 10 days. Hundreds have protested daily since the shooting, many pushing for the footage to be released. Pasquotank County Sheriff Tommy Wooten had petitioned for its release, which is what prompted today’s hearing, but District Attorney Andrew Womble opposed the move. Judge Foster said doing so now could affect a future trial or jeopardize the safety of the deputies. He also ruled against a request from more than a dozen media outlets for an immediate public release of the footage, saying they did not have the standing to request it.
The Virginian-Pilot
editorials & opinion
"If damaged or misplaced records can interfere with freedom of information requests, imagine how much harm can be done from deliberate efforts to withhold data."
Freedom of information has been a busy topic here lately — a new state law telling police not to withhold so many documents, a regional transit agency taking public money but trying to claim it wasn’t a public agency. Now comes an update on city data that had been requested under the Freedom of Information Act but that had been said not to exist. It turns out, the data might be traceable after all. Jason Kessler, organizer of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, had sued the city to gain access to texts and emails from the city manager who helped coordinate Charlottesville’s response at the time. Set aside, if you can, the source of the suit. Our purpose here is to look at its Freedom of Information impact. . . . The incident does illustrate, though, just how fragile the public information system can be at times. If damaged or misplaced records can interfere with freedom of information requests, imagine how much harm can be done from deliberate efforts to withhold data.
The Daily Progress

“THE COVER-UP is worse than the crime” is an oft-repeated phrase in political circles because no matter how egregious the offense committed by corrupt public officials, those who attempt to cover it up for their own political purposes actually wind up doing more damage to the rule of law and the public trust. Now we’re told that an “independent” outside law firm hired by Herring will be investigating. Not the Parole Board, mind you, but the OIG’s handing of the Martin case—and just the Martin case—not the cases of 95 other violent felons the board also released in just 35 days. But these legal mercenaries won’t be allowed to speak to the media or publicly release their findings unless Herring’s office says it’s OK. And to add insult to injury, Virginia taxpayers will be charged $250,000 for this farce. 
The Free Lance-Star