Transparency News, 4/3/20


April 3, 2020
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state & local news stories
New entries are being added every day to VCOG's compilation of local government response to FOIA meetings and records requests during the declared state of emergency.
For more than a week, it’s technically been unlawful for Virginians to gather in groups of 10 or more people.  But since Gov. Ralph Northam issued his main executive order on March 23 to stop the spread of COVID-19, state court records show just two cases of people being formally charged for violating social distancing rules, though those records may not reflect all citations. On March 28, three summonses were issued when revelers refused to leave a house party on the Eastern Shore after being given a warning, according to Northampton County Sheriff David L. Doughty Jr. The sheriff said there were around 20 people at the party. A search of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s statewide court database yielded only the two cases in Northampton and Pittsylvania counties according to results provided Wednesday by court officials.  The Virginia Mercury filed a Freedom of Information Act request for cases related to Northam’s coronavirus orders since March 23, the day the governor issued a formal order banning large gatherings and closing restaurant dining rooms, gyms, theaters, salons and other businesses deemed at risk of speeding the spread of the virus.
Virginia Mercury

Anyone can file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. While it is often used as a tool for reporters looking to obtain documents from governing bodies and government offices, residents, business owners, and non-profit organizations also file FOIA requests to obtain information from the local, state, and federal governments. In Prince William County, things have changed as the county’s school division says it has temporarily suspended all FOIA requests following Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s emergency declaration on March 12. In an email sent after this story was first published, Prince William County Public Schools spokeswoman Diana Gulotta tells says the school division is still responding to FOIA requests but needs additional time to process the order. "Due to the state of emergency declared by the Governor of Virginia and the related closure of the Prince William County Public Schools, including its administrative offices, PWCS is unable to process your FOIA request."
Potomac Local

The Hanover Board of Supervisors voted 4-3 against holding off a hearing and vote on a Wegmans distribution center planned for Sliding Hill Road on April 22. Project critics had hoped to see the vote delayed for a second time. Some voiced frustration with the timing, saying a state ban on public gatherings to thwart the spread of COVID-19 will hamper citizens’ ability to participate. Supervisors Bucky Stanley, Sean Davis, Michael Herzberg and Canova Peterson voted against postponing a decision on the plans, which have incited nearby residents who fear traffic and other quality-of-life issues. "I recognize the dynamic of having someone come here to speak to us," Davis said. "But many people don't go to Washington everyday to speak to their congressman." The supervisors who voted to delay the hearing again said the county needs time to figure out how those people can speak directly to the board in person, rather than leaving a voicemail or sending an email as the county has insisted for all upcoming public hearings. "We’re not Washington. We’re a local government,” Supervisor Faye Prichard said, in response to Davis. “Our citizens consider being able to stand in front of us a foundational and fundamental part of what local government provides." 
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Much of the monthly Henry County Public School Board meeting focused on how the school system is preparing for the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its operations, from the possibility of summer school to potential budget changes. The meeting setup reflected social distancing precautions by limiting the number of people in the room and seating board members and staff farther apart. School staff who had a part on the agenda rotated in and out when it was their turn to give a presentation.
Martinsville Bulletin

The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors took the opportunity of a planned budget working session Thursday morning to adopt emergency measures—including an emergency ordinance—in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the provisions of the ordinance are procedures that allow local government bodies to hold fully electronic public meetings to conduct essential business. These measures are designed to enable public knowledge of and participation in local government while citizens are under state orders to stay home and practice social distancing. The ordinance makes clear that only essential government business can be conducted, defined as “those items without the passage of which the public interest would be irrevocably harmed.”
Rappahannock Record

In order to move forward with “the continuity of government,” the Carroll County Board of Supervisors has passed an emergency ordinance to carry it through for the next six months. “Unfortunately, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which governs all of your meetings, your public documents, and the conduct of public business, was not really designed with an outbreak of this nature in mind,” County Attorney Stephen Durbin told Carroll supervisors. “It really envisioned things like blizzards, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, not something like what we are facing right now where actually meeting together in person in groups to allow the public discourse, that very act is increasing the emergency potentially. It is just something that was never accounted for under FOIA.”  Durbin added, "We could hold a public hearing in one of the ways described in this ordinance, and that may be in an electronic meeting with soliciting public comments through email, through U.S. mail, through telephonic means, over the internet to the extent we can work out the technical aspects of streaming all of that.” 
The Carroll News

During the first quarter of 2020, eight people donated a total of $975 to the Alexandria Times FOIA Fund. The Times made three FOIA requests of the City of Alexandria in the first quarter of 2020.
Alexandria Times
stories of national interest
Processing Right-to-Know Law requests from reporters and other citizens in Pennsylvania seeking to better understand the effects of state's COVID-19 mitigation efforts has come to a halt. The new procedure was detailed to The York Dispatch after it last week filed an RTK request seeking details of business waivers approved by the state Department of Economic and Community Development — information the department has refused to release. Now, information that can only be acquired via the RTK process will remain unknown until April 30 at the earliest, when state offices are slated to reopen their physical locations, according to an email from the Governor’s Office of General Counsel.
The York Dispatch

The captain of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus was fired Thursday by Navy leaders who said he created a panic by sending his memo pleading for help to too many people. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the ship's commander, Capt. Brett Crozier “demonstrated extremely poor judgement” in the middle of a crisis. He said the captain copied too many people on the memo, which was leaked to a California newspaper and quickly spread to many news outlets. He said Crozier should have gone directly to his immediate commanders, who were already moving to help the ship.
The Virginian-Pilot

A federal appeals court has ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must release parts of a computer program that models the cost for automakers of fuel-economy standard scenarios to two environmental groups who sought it under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that the EPA must provide the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Defense Fund with the “core model” of its OMEGA software because the program does not qualify for an exemption from mandatory records disclosure under FOIA.

To further facilitate the social distancing and stay-at-home orders put in place in the past two weeks, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee suspended several parts of the state’s government transparency laws this week. The order, which is in effect until April 24, temporarily waives certain requirements of Washington’s Open Public Meeting and Public Records acts. Public meetings are no longer required to be held in public spaces, but must have options for public comment and participation remotely. Public agencies are no longer required to initially respond to public records requests within five days, but are still required to respond quickly.
The Leader