Transparency News 5/27/14

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

State and Local Stories

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Friday vetoed a bill passed unanimously by the General Assembly that would have barred him from accepting donations from anyone seeking grants from an economic-development fund he controls. The multimillion-dollar Governor’s Opportunity Fund provides cash grants and loans to companies that maintain or create jobs in the state. A ban would have blocked contributions or gifts worth more than $50 from applicants, but McAuliffe said more time was needed to avoid compromising applicants’ confidentiality. Republicans and Democrats immediately criticized the governor’s action.
Washington Post

Virginia ethics reforms intended to shine light on public officials’ practice of accepting lavish gifts — like the ones that landed former governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife in federal court — could have the opposite effect. Under a new law, the public should be able to scrutinize a wide variety of officeholders’ financial data and gifts they receive with a quick check online. But unanswered questions about how the electronic clearinghouse will be set up could make it harder, not easier, to see the information.
Washington Post

The Roanoke Sheriff’s Office launched an online tool Friday that allows anyone to look up the status of an inmate currently booked at the city jail. The database — which shows users the booking photographs, charges and bond information for an inmate — is a first for a local jail in the Roanoke Valley. The Western Virginia Regional Jail in Salem and the New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin already have such an inmate search. “All this information is public information,” said Roanoke Sheriff Tim Allen. “But we’re making it available as a better way to serve the community.”
Roanoke Times

Bedford County unveiled a new public geographic information system last week. The old, outdated website has been in place since 2001 and was compatible only with Internet Explorer, which spurred the county to invest in a new one. “The new application has a more modern, aesthetically pleasing look and feel, navigation is easier, there are more searches and more information on parcel and improvement data,” GIS coordinator Carl Levandoski said in an email. Levandoski said the new website now works with all Web browsers, including Firefox, Chrome and Safari, and Apple products and newer Windows operating systems. It also includes printing options.
Roanoke Times

State Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne made headlines in January when he blasted the Virginia Port Authority's board, saying that he'd lost faith in its financial projections, which lacked all credibility. His displeasure, however, was fueled by something that he never mentioned publicly. Earlier that morning, top board members told Layne they'd just discovered something that helped explain why the port was losing money even as cargo volume soared. In the middle of a state review of port privatization bids that began in the spring of 2012, Virginia International Terminals, which operates the port for the authority, had offered discounts to ocean carriers in return for driving more rail cargo through the port. The incentives were on top of long-term contracts that provided "tiered" discounts for rail containers once certain benchmarks were met. Several former board members recently replaced by McAuliffe said the rail incentives are emblematic of a chronic lack of transparency between VIT, the tax-exempt, independent company set up more than 30 years ago to run the port's facilities, and the authority, which owns them.

National Stories

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz testified under oath Wednesday that it was “entirely proper” for him to meet in secret with House Speaker Will Weatherford to reach a deal over a congressional map as part of the Legislature’s once-a-decade redistricting process. Gaetz, R-Niceville, who along with Weatherford was chairman of his chamber’s redistricting maps in 2011-12, told the court that he and Weatherford met twice and agreed to settle on the Senate’s map design for the final joint congressional map. It included a provision that boosted the number of black voters in the meandering congressional District 5, a Democrat-majority district that slices through dozens of towns to collect black voters from Jacksonville to Orlando. “It was entirely proper, it was entirely ordinary that we would meet as two committee chairs to work out differences,’’ Gaetz said during more than three hours of testimony.
Miami Herald

Federal appeals judges in Atlanta on Thursday heard a case that could prompt their first interpretation of how a 2006 Supreme Court decision applies to the free speech rights of government employees involved in unions. The arguments at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on Thursday involved comments that Richard "Jeff" Hubbard made when he was president of a statewide teachers' group that was critical of Clayton County school board members. Hubbard, who was essentially on leave from his job as a Clayton County assistant principal, claims the school district forced him out in retaliation for his remarks. But a federal judge dismissed Hubbard's First Amendment lawsuit against the school district on the basis that Hubbard was speaking as a district employee—not a free citizen or union leader—and was subject to discipline from his bosses.
Daily Report


Radford schools are promising that future audio files of board meetings will end up much less expensive than the $40-an-hour rate quoted initially to an interested resident. The schools lowered the hourly rate to $33.58 after Casey asked a couple of pointed questions. Like whether then school board candidate Mark Schafer’s request for copies of 20.75 hours of audio files should really require 20.75 hours of an IT tech’s time, and if the $830 tab covered only “actual costs” of duplication — essentially, the cost of that person’s time — without overhead, as the state’s Freedom of Information Act requires. The latter question prompted the schools to shave a few bucks off the rate. It was the other question, though, that enlightened: Duplicating 20.75 hours of digital sound files requires 20.75 hours of an IT guy’s time? Really? Schafer lost the election in May, but something good will come from his candidacy. Schools Superintendent Becky Greer wrote in an email to a reporter last week that an up-to-date program will allow audio copies of meetings to be made faster and inexpensively.
Roanoke Times