Transparency News, 5/13/20


May 13, 2020
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state & local news stories
"Senate Bill 977 requires local governing bodies to provide the opportunity for public comment during a regular meeting at least quarterly."
Amid a change in partisan control of the General Assembly, Virginia saw a big jump in companies, trade associations and single-interest groups with registered lobbyists. In the year ending April 30, the number of clients with representation grew 12.6 percent to 1,172. That compares to an average growth rate of about 2 percent over the last decade. The number of individuals who lobbied also shot up, increasing to 1,126 from 1,004.
Virginia Public Access Project

The Salem City Council will add a public comment period to one meeting each month starting in June. The council approved an ordinance Monday that changed the language of city code to allow meetings to start at 6:30 p.m. and added a public comment period to the order of proceedings. Unlike many other localities, Salem plans to require citizens to request time to speak prior to the start of city council meetings. In discussions earlier this year, the council considered requiring citizens to sign up the week before the Monday city council meeting and specifying the topic they wished to discuss. City Manager Jay Taliaferro said the council wanted to implement this policy to help with scheduling. If no one signed up for a meeting, that time could be used to discuss an additional topic in the regular meeting or in a work session. Council members have also considered limiting the number of speakers to five at each meeting and allowing each person to speak for three minutes. The move by Salem’s city council comes after the Virginia General Assembly passed and the governor signed a public comments law introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, during this year’s session. Senate Bill 977 requires local governing bodies to provide the opportunity for public comment during a regular meeting at least quarterly.
The Roanoke Times

A dozen people spoke out during the public comment portion of Monday night’s Winchester School Board meeting, denouncing the possibility of Handley High School Principal Mike Dufrene's contract not being renewed. As of Monday night, Dufrene's future at Handley remained unclear, but an email on Tuesday evening from Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum confirmed that Dufrene was leaving at the end of the school year to become principal at Hampshire High School in Romney, West Virginia. The announcement about Dufrene's departure nullified some of the citizen comments made at Monday night's meeting, but a common thread among them was a need for more transparency from the School Board about the decisions they make. Because Monday night's meeting was held virtually from the division's Central Administrative Office, School Board Chairperson Allyson Pate read each of the 12 comments submitted online by citizens prior to the meeting. Damon DeArment asked the board to hold any future vote on Dufrene's employment in open session, with all discussions on the matter made available to the public. He further asked that each board member make a public statement about their vote on Dufrene's contract. 
The Winchester Star
stories of national interest
An Oklahoma organization pushing for transparency in government criticized the OU Board of Regents’ noncompliance with the state’s Open Meeting Act in its May 8-9 meetings.  Freedom of Information Oklahoma said in its statement that meeting notices and agendas announcing the regents’ meetings last weekend “again missed the mark in fully complying” with state open meeting legislation.  “We are disappointed, yet again, at the OU Board of Regents' continued apparent disregard for the state's Open Meeting Act,” Freedom of Information Oklahoma said in the statement. “This week, they failed to provide proper notice of an upcoming meeting and, when they finally did post notice, their agenda omits critical information about … what will be discussed at the meeting.”  
OU Daily
editorials & columns
"New data, contracts and communications are being created digitally every day that would certainly fall under public access laws."
In the midst of a pandemic, it is reasonable to expect delays in processing public records requests and even incomplete responses, especially where public entities may not have access to physical files or other resources. But work-from-home orders have demonstrated that government can carry on remotely. New data, contracts and communications are being created digitally every day that would certainly fall under public access laws. Fulfilling FOIA requests can be grueling grunt work, but such labor should be deemed essential during the pandemic. Far too often officials have sought to alter or disregard FOIA laws to obscure government conduct or mismanagement. Particularly as reports emerge of profligate state spending on protective masks and conflicting accounts of the federal response to the pandemic, Americans deserve to see freedom of information laws obeyed, not trampled.
New York Times

local governments today are very, very different. The increased capacity developed over the past few decades to meet the needs of their residents will be essential in beating back the virus and recovering from its effects. Municipalities and counties already are at ground zero of economic development and employment, as well as ensuring equity and transparency in our society’s response to quarantine. That effort’s effects may slow down, but should not derail, the vital investments we need to make in transit, in local services, in regional cooperation, in affordable housing, in education and in racial equity.
Richard Meagher, Style Weekly