Transparency News, 5/18/20


May 18, 2020
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state & local news stories
"Not once since announcing the task force has he used his opening statements to specifically address the plight of long-term care residents and their families who hunger for information."
On April 10, Gov. Ralph Northam announced he had assembled a task force to protect frail, elderly Virginians after 32 of them had died while in long-term care and a Richmond-area home was in the grips of one of the nation’s deadliest outbreaks. The virus has since swept through 170 nursing homes and assisted living centers, killing 589 Virginians — at least 13 of whom lived in the Roanoke Valley — and infecting nearly 4,000 workers and residents. As of Sunday, their deaths accounted for nearly 60% of the 1,009 Virginians claimed by the virus. During all this time, Northam has held thrice-weekly COVID-19 briefings that begin with points he wishes to address. Not once since announcing the task force has he used his opening statements to specifically address the plight of long-term care residents and their families who hunger for information. Northam’s administration has refused to name the homes where cases have been identified, or even to say where they are located.
The Roanoke Times

Lynchburg prosecutors Friday announced they will not pursue criminal charges against two journalists who Liberty University police accused of trespassing on campus while covering the school’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Bethany Harrison said the journalists — Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, and Julia Rendleman, a freelance photographer for The New York Times — violated the misdemeanor trespassing statute when they made unauthorized visits to campus in late March. But Harrison’s office ultimately decided not to pursue the case in court after consulting with Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. Harrison said Falwell was “satisfied with having the reporters understand they have to respect the no trespassing signs.” A Liberty University spokesperson did not return a request for comment Friday.
The News & Advance

In the weeks before an outbreak of COVID-19 struck Young Williams Child Support Services, a complaint was filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the call center’s efforts to prevent the virus’s spread. OSHA, a division of the federal Department of Labor, investigates potential health and safety hazards in the workplace. A complaint emailed to the agency on April 13 alleged, “During this COVID-19 crisis, certain employees are allowed to work from home while about 30% must stay in office and work. HR is handing out Lysol wipes every 3-4 days to wipe off.” The information was contained in a spreadsheet from the OSHA website listing “closed federal and state plan valid COVID-19 complaints through May 4.” The agency keeps confidential the identity of workers who make complaints. No further information on the investigation or its outcome is available. An email sent Wednesday to a labor department FOIA officer was not immediately returned.
Martinsville Bulletin

Charlottesville's City Council is ready to take the first step in approving a reduced spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year amid the coronavirus pandemic. The council will hold a virtual public hearing and first reading on a scaled-back budget for fiscal year 2021, which starts July 1, during its meeting Monday. At the meeting, the council also will receive a report about staff’s capacity to run live broadcasts of some meetings of its boards and commissions that could be held electronically during the pandemic. At a work session Wednesday, a majority of the council tentatively supported allowing electronic meetings for the Board of Equalization, Ridge Street Task Force, Housing Advisory Committee, Retirement Commission, Human Rights Commission and the Community Development Block Grant/HOME Task Force. The council asked for more details on the burden of providing a live broadcast on the public access channel rather than airing the other meetings after the fact and whether a communications employee or board chair should host the meeting through online software. The Electoral Board also is being considered as a body whose meetings could be broadcast live.
The Daily Progress

The Prince William County School Board announced Friday afternoon that it has hired an outside law firm this week as part of the investigation into the Twitter use of Superintendent Steve Walts. The School Board held a virtual meeting Wednesday, with a closed session, and voted afterward 8-0 to hire the outside legal team. The board didn't specify the firm's role at the time. "On Wednesday, the board voted to retain the law firm of Hunton Andrews Kurth to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations and oversee any ongoing work by the forensics firm," according to a statement from the School Board on Friday. Walts said because the account is an official account, managed in part by the communications staff, no messages conducted through this account were private.  
stories of national interest
“Want to snitch on your neighbor? Don’t expect to hide behind you (sic) computer screen.”
The Supreme Court has gotten a fair amount of praise for the way it adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic: hearing arguments by conference call, with the justices asking questions one at a time in order of seniority, and the public allowed to listen in. The 10 arguments the court heard over the past two weeks were orderly and dignified, and some people thought the new format was a significant improvement over the unruly free-for-all that characterizes oral arguments in the courtroom. There were few glitches, putting aside what certainly sounded like a flushing toilet, and the questioning was characteristically sharp and subtle. But there was a notable dissent, and it came from an observer with exceptional qualifications. Lyle Denniston, who has attended more Supreme Court arguments than any other journalist and quite possibly more than anyone alive, issued a bill of particulars objecting to the new format after the second conference-call argument.
The New York Times

As demonstrators of Washington’s stay-at-home order to slow the new coronavirus converged Saturday on the Capitol campus to again protest the restrictions, opposition has taken a darker turn online. Two Facebook pages during the past week posted names, emails and phone numbers of state residents who had complained to the state about businesses allegedly violating Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order. Some of the complainants say the Facebook posts have generated threats of violence and harassment against them. One group publicizing the names, the Washington Three Percenters, has promoted the stay-at-home protests, and one of its leaders spoke at Saturday’s demonstration. On its Facebook page, the far-right group of self-described “God fearing Patriots,” had this message: “Want to snitch on your neighbor? Don’t expect to hide behind you (sic) computer screen.” With the message, the group provided a link to a spreadsheet containing the names and contact information of people who made reports to the state.
Seattle Times


editorials & columns
"Logistically, it might be troublesome to sort commenters based on geography or any other metric; constitutionally, it would be problematic to deny certain commenters the freedom that was offered to others."
Albemarle is considering whether and how to add a broad public comment section back to its Board of Supervisors’ meetings. That comment period once allowed citizens to talk about issues not on the board’s agenda. That opportunity was eliminated when the board shifted to electronic meetings; now, people can comment electronically only on agenda items. Board members discussed the possibility of restoring the comment period, and may discuss it again at a work session on May 18. Concerns include the possibility that, ironically, the open comment period would be too popular — overwhelmed by outsiders, since electronic access is easily exploited by anyone with internet capability. Yet restricting comment — say, to those only from Albemarle County or only from Virginia — is fraught with difficulties, both practical and constitutional. Logistically, it might be troublesome to sort commenters based on geography or any other metric; constitutionally, it would be problematic to deny certain commenters the freedom that was offered to others. Still, efforts to solve such problems are worth the trouble.
The Daily Progress

Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ordered nursing homes and long-term care facilities to report to residents, their families and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The information will be made available through the CMS website by the end of May. Virginia should follow that lead by changing state law at the earliest opportunity to require more transparency from these facilities. According to Pilot reporting, Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, is drafting legislation to achieve that and hopes to introduce it in a special session later this year. It’s painfully obvious that such a change is needed and overdue. Certainly, patient privacy should be paramount. However, there is a pressing public interest in providing the public the most detailed and accurate view of this situation possible — and that requires a better reporting for these long-term care facilities. Thecommonwealth needs legislation that threads the needle between the right to patient privacy and the public’s right to know more details about operations in these facilities. Citizens should support a bill that would make general health information more transparent and accessible.
The Virginian-Pilot

Sarah Graham Taylor, Alexandria’s eyes and ears on state government, recalls crowding into a legislator’s stuffy, fifth-floor office in late February with about 15 people, most of them fellow lobbyists, to thrash out a deal allowing the city to impose a nickel tax on plastic grocery bags. In pre-coronavirus Richmond, such get-togethers were routine. The pandemic is remaking how Virginians work. This is especially challenging for people who make their living getting up close and personal with others: barbers, manicurists, waiters, bartenders, tattoo artists, nurses, doctors, masseuses and an ilk mindful of politicians’ aches and pains — lobbyists. Theirs is a shoe-leather business that’s all about access. But COVID-19 — for reasons of health and safety — is erasing the intimacy that, through a lobbyist’s scheduled sit-downs and spontaneous asides with elective and appointive officials, can shape public policy. That one-on-one, face-to-face approach not only allows a lobbyist to directly hear from, say, a lawmaker, but also to grasp unspoken concerns telegraphed through body language and eye contact — or lack thereof. Lobbyists aren’t the only ones who’ll be inconvenienced. Grassroots activists who travel by the busload to the state Capitol and legislative office building are likely to have a much harder time projecting the strength-in-numbers image synonymous with gun-rights groups, immigrant organizations and health care proponents. Government, in other words, could be out of reach to some. “It’s a brave new world and it does have the potential to become more closed and less transparent,” said Taylor.
Jeff Schapiro, Richmond Times-Dispatch