Transparency News 5/23/19



May 23, 2019


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state & local news stories


An attorney for the state police "argued that redaction by deletion could make it more difficult for her client to challenge the redactions."

We’ve again updated the clearinghouse page again for the Transparent GMU v. George Mason case, this time with the briefs filed by the university and the foundation, as well as an amicus brief filed by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council.

Virginia State Police again have 30 days to release a redacted copy of its Aug. 12, 2017, operational plan to a freelance journalist after a Charlottesville judge decided some of the information would not be a risk to the police or the public. Reporters Natalie Jacobsen and Jackson Landers — represented pro bono by attorneys from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — sued the city of Charlottesville, state police and the Office of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security in October 2017 for access to city and state police plans from the Unite the Right rally. Some confusion arose regarding the redaction methodology. Moore said that redaction via deletion of material believed by the VSP to be exempt could be done, rather than the more common black-out line redaction. This could be appropriate, Moore said, so that the length of redacted materials could not be revealed to the public by Jacobsen, and thus perhaps create a public safety risk. Caitlin Vogus, an attorney for Jacobsen, disagreed with this plan and argued that redaction by deletion could make it more difficult for her client to challenge the redactions. As a compromise, Moore suggested allowing Jacobsen a blacked-out redacted copy so long as she not release it publicly. When Vogus objected, pointing to Jacobsen’s role as a journalist and right as a member of the public, Moore suggested not giving the plaintiff a copy of the report.
The Daily Progress

Gov. Ralph Northam sat down last week with 45 elected officials and top administrators from 16 cities across Virginia to talk about some of the weightiest issues facing municipalities with pressing urban problems and limited resources to solve them. In a public announcement on Saturday, Virginia First Cities said the meeting — the first directly between the organization’s board of directors and a governor since Gov. Tim Kaine held office a decade ago — was “an important dialogue with city managers and city council members from across the Commonwealth of Virginia.” But the conversation had occurred the day before in a closed-door meeting of the nonprofit organization’s board of directors in Newport News, raising new questions about Northam’s public schedule in the aftermath of a scandal that erupted Feb. 1 over a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page 35 years ago. The Friday event wasn’t listed on the schedule that the governor’s office had issued two days before the meeting, an omission that Virginia First Cities quickly claimed as its responsibility. “The reason it’s not on the governor’s schedule is because it wasn’t an open press event — it just wasn’t,” said Kelly Harris-Braxton, executive director of the nonprofit representing the group of cities, including Richmond and Petersburg.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Chesterfield County’s leaders are too lenient on developers, contends a group of residents who rallied outside the county Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday. About 20 people gathered shortly before the board’s meeting, holding silver-colored trays and plates. As supervisors walked by, the residents implored them to not give the county over to developers on a silver platter. The rally was held about a year after the county’s Economic Development Authority withdrew plans to develop a 1,700-acre industrial “megasite” amid opposition from residents. Mike Uzel, a member of the Chesterfield Citizens United group that organized Wednesday’s rally, told attendees that even after the megasite plan was withdrawn, county leaders have continued to pursue a pro-developer approach. “They’re still on the same track of doing what they feel is best for us without our input,” Uzel said.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

An Altavista Town Councilman is charged with two felony counts related to his election, according to Virginia State Police. Timothy H. George, 57, turned himself in to police Tuesday, according to an email from VSP spokesperson Corinne Geller. Indictments filed against George on Monday state that he lied on a “petition of qualified voters” required by a section of state code that dictates candidates file a petition of signatures along with their declaration of candidacy.
The News & Advance

What he describes as serious problems with the FBI crime database are prompting Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, to introduce legislation to tighten rules for the criminal records potential employers can see. The bill bars the release of records or information about an arrest if it does not say what the result was — that is, whether the arrested person was convicted, acquitted or if the charge was dropped. It also bars the release of any information that’s not clearly about and arrest and its disposition, as well the research of information about such minor offenses as drunkenness, vagrancy, disturbing the peace and traffic violations. It says the subject of such a record must consent to its release, and should have the ability to challenge its accuracy. “Far too often, many face an additional barrier created by faulty criminal background records released by the FBI," Scott said.
Daily Press

Paying utility bills at Danville’s Charles H. Harris Financial Service Center is a hassle for city resident Louis Puryear. That’s because the facility does not take debit or credit cards from customers who pay in person. City Councilman James Buckner and the city manager are working on a plan to possibly offer that option to city residents who pay their utility bills at the center. Buckner brought up the issue at a City Council work session in December 2016, calling the absence of that choice “insane.” But if the city were to accept cards at the counter, officials would have to take on measures to protect consumer information, which triggers audits, Finance Director Michael Adkins said at the time. There would be security concerns and the city would have to assume liability, Assistant Finance Director Jennifer Holley said Wednesday.
Register & Bee

The two Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority board seats left vacant upon Greg Drescher’s and Ron Llewellyn’s March resignations will remain empty for the time being. EDA's unpaid board members are appointed to four-year terms by the Warren County Board of Supervisors, who entered a closed session Tuesday night to discuss the vacancies. It was announced that the supervisors plan to interview four more candidates who have applied and the application submission period will end May 31. When interviews were conducted in November to fill the seat left vacant upon the resignation of the EDA’s treasurer of 30 years, Billie Biggs, several candidates participated in media interviews. Those candidates, who are being considered again, were Gulraiz Hassan, Jeff Browne and Robert MacDougall. Supervisor Tony Carter said on Wednesday that, in total, the supervisors have interviewed about 12 candidates so far. The county previously declined to provide the other candidates' names, citing the voluntary Freedom of Information Act exemption relating to personnel matters. During the public comments period of the supervisors' Tuesday meeting, speaker Kelly Sprague expressed dismay that the county is interviewing candidates during closed session. She said that while surely there are times closed meetings must be held, she asked: “how often does that really need to happen?” Sprague said that with all the recent controversy surrounding the authority there is a “dire need” for the public to have confidence in the EDA board.
The Northern Virginia Daily


stories of national interest

The Interior Department has for about a year allowed political appointees to weigh in on which federal records are released to the public, creating delays that could violate open records law and expose the department to legal action. “If political officials are becoming involved in the process and as a result of that causes the agency to not comply with its obligations” under the Freedom of Information Act, “that is a serious problem,” said Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. While Interior says the so-called awareness review process merely continues a practice informally exercised during the Obama administration, First Amendment lawyers say the department’s formal application of the policy is unusual.
Roll Call

A bill that would bring records disclosing how government agencies spend taxpayer money back into public view is likely headed to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. Senate Bill 943, which passed in the Senate and received initial approval from the House on Friday, would re-establish in the law that information about contracts that governments make with businesses must be public, with some exceptions. State agencies and local governments had been able to withhold much of that information after a 2015 Texas Supreme Court ruling in Boeing v. Paxton gave them and affected businesses the ability to deny requests if they claimed it could give their competitors an unfair advantage. 
Houston Chronicle



quote_2.jpg"If political officials are becoming involved in the process and as a result of that causes the agency to not comply with its obligations, that is a serious problem." -- Adam Marshall, RCFP attorney