Transparency News, 5/27/21


 May 27, 2021
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state & local news stories
The FOIA Council's subcommittee on meetings voted against recommending HB 1997 to the full council. The bill, as written, would have changed the definition of "meeting" in FOIA so as to allow three members to talk public business without regard to FOIA, up from the current two. The 4-1 vote in favor of not recommending came after a member of the Fairfax County School Board recounted how difficult it was for her 12-member board to talk about even administrative matters during the pandemic. Del. Kathleen Murphy, the bill's patron, assured committee members that there was no attempt to hide anything from the public.

I gave public comment against the measure, noting how the current definition, which is around 40 years old, is predictable and easy to apply. I also noted that citizens are already frustrated when they realize at a public meeting that the members of a public body have already discussed matters in legal two-by-two meetings away from the public, and the bill would only increase the pool of such conversations.

The Virginia Association of Broadcasters and the Virginia Press Association also spoke against the measure. Both pointed out that three people constitutes a quorum in many localities.

The most forceful voice against the proposal was FOIA Council member Billy Coleburn, a newspaper publisher and the mayor of Blackstone. He reminded the group that when people run for public office, they don't promise to do businesses out of the public eye. He was joined by Del. William Wampler and attorneys Lee Bujakowski and Chidi James.

After the vote, James moved to have the subcommittee recommend a suggestion made by the fifth subcommittee member, Cullen Selzer (also the chair) to change the definition to  a certain percentage of members of a public body, thus still limiting smaller bodies but giving more flexibility to larger bodies.

Wampler figured some back-of-the-envelope math to point out that on a board of 24 members (there are several such boards at the state and regional level), the percentage suggestion would allow eight or nine people to talk outside the confines of FOIA, something that would promote voting blocks.

The motion eventually failed on a 2-3 vote, with Bujakowski, Coleburn and Wampler voting against it.

The non-recommendation will go the full FOIA Council, which could accept or disregard it.
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The city council's decision to eliminate phone calls into public hearings has drawn attention from numerous watchdog groups inside and out of Virginia, but are its choices really that much different than other localities in the state?  Assistant City Manager Leslie Beauregard set out to find the answer, at the request of certain council members. According to Beauregard, Councilwoman Amy Darby reached out first to request the survey. Vice Mayor Mark Robertson expressed interest in the results as well, she said. Different localities that are members of the Virginia Institute of Government responded in the survey, including Harrisonburg and Waynesboro. In total, 12 localities responded to the survey, shedding light on the decisions they made regarding electronic participation in public hearings, and how Staunton's recent choices compare. According to the survey results published in the city agenda, 11 out of 12  localities surveyed are still using remote participation options in public hearings and matters via zoom, the phone or another platform.
News Leader

The city of Martinsville and Henry County have an agreement for Martinsville to revert to a town within the county. During a joint meeting Wednesday evening, Martinsville City Council members voted 5-0 in favor of the memorandum of understanding, while Henry supervisors approved the measure on a 4-2 vote. The agreement is not legally binding but does express in writing a willingness of the parties to proceed. The exclusion of the public during the negotiating process is allowed by state code, and both governments took full advantage of the privacy the law provides in discussing their differences.
Martinsville Bulletin
stories from around the country
Politicians haven't been kissing many babies of late, but some Orange County (California) Congress members have been holding more town halls than ever, trying to share information about the pandemic and political issues while taking advantage of the convenience — and marketing reach — that comes with virtual meetings. From the politician's view, virtual town halls have their perks, starting with the fact that anybody, in any district, can tune in without changing out of their pajamas. In April 2020, a virtual event hosted by Rep. Katie Porter, D- Irvine, drew more than 100,000 people. Pre-pandemic, Porter's biggest live audience had been a space-limited 400. But technology also can bring challenges. On May 18, Rep. Young Kim, R- La Habra, held a telephone town hall (her third since taking office in January) where residents who pre-registered to "attend" were supposed to get a call connecting them as the event went live. Instead, many phones never rang. A spokesperson for Kim said her office is looking into what went wrong and working with their phone session vendor to make sure it doesn't happen again.