Transparency News, 5/3/2022


May 3, 2022

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state & local news stories


VCOG's annual conference. Learn more here.

ICYMI, VCOG's roundup of 12 FOIA cases filed or decided during April. And this morning, a Roanoke general district court judge is scheduled to hear a case against Virginia Tech brought by Henri Gendreau, editor of the online publication Roanoke Rambler. Henri says the university gave him a blanket denial -- citing FERPA, the federal student scholastic privacy law -- when he requested emails regarding the Tech football player who was arrested for murder last year. Henri says Virginia Tech did not cite the volume or subject matter of the records it withheld, as § 2.2-3704(B)(1) says.

As Democrats and Republicans continue to point fingers over who’s to blame for Virginia’s delayed budget, the two lawmakers leading the negotiations said Monday they have no plans to hold any public meetings that might offer more insight into how those talks are going. Knight said there have been no discussions of calling a full meeting of all 14 lawmakers assigned to work on the budget, a step that would trigger open-meeting requirements and allow reporters and the public to see what each side is offering and what’s causing the holdup. “That’s what has always worked here at the legislative branch,” Knight said of the backchannel negotiations through which budget deals are usually worked out. Howell concurred. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the term “conference committee” can often be misleading, since many of them don’t ever involve actual meetings. The budget conference is different, she said, because it usually involves at least some lawmakers meeting as a group with no public notice of where the meeting is taking place and what’s being discussed.
Virginia Mercury

Hampton Roads Ventures, the controversial subsidiary of Norfolk’s housing authority, will try to add a Norfolk project in the next application for tax credits used to finance projects in distressed areas. The corporation came under fire from some City Council members after a Virginia Mercury series revealed it had won $360 million of New Markets Tax Credits from 2003 through 2021, but invested only a fraction of that in Norfolk. “As previously discussed, we will work to include one or two eligible Norfolk projects in HRV’s pipeline for the next NMTC application,” Delphine Carnes, the lawyer for the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority and Hampton Roads Ventures, wrote in an email to City Attorney Bernard Pishko on Jan. 19. In a later email, she detailed a process where the Department of Economic Development would vet potential projects and submit them to the for-profit subsidiary of the NRHA for consideration.  The email by Carnes was one of several dozen files surrendered by the city in response to public records requests by the Mercury for exchanges between the NRHA and the city from December through March 24.  
Virginia Mercury

The Virginia Attorney General’s Office is questioning the volume of redacted records filed at the State Corporation Commission related to the cost of Dominion Energy’s proposed offshore wind farm. The office’s Division of Consumer Counsel made a filing on Friday asking Dominion Energy to justify the need for the confidential material in a case pending before the commission, and asking the commission to make more information available to the public. It’s not unusual for information to be redacted in public filings made at the State Corporation Commission, but there’s a general presumption of public disclosure. Information can be made confidential in the public record, however, if there’s a risk of financial harm to the company or its suppliers, for example.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

A joint meeting recently between the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and Leesburg Town Council left some members of the respective boards feeling more hopeful for open dialog between the two parties. Several members of both bodies expressed frustration that an agreement had not been reached with regards to revenue-sharing. Supervisor Caleb Kershner, R-Catoctin, said the county had approached the town with what he called a “pretty generous offer,” in the “millions of dollars.” Town Councilwoman Suzanne Fox acknowledged the offer, but said the county approached the offer with no room for negotiations, using, as she put it, a “take-it-or-leave-it" approach. Town Councilman Zach Cummings asked during the meeting if the negotiations could just be had right there during the meeting. “I don’t understand, and maybe I’m looking at this wrong, why can’t we have this now?” he said. “We owe it to the taxpayers to do that.” But attorneys representing both the town and the county strongly encouraged both bodies to not discuss specific monetary amounts during public meetings, saying the negotiations over money would be better held in closed session. Both Randall and Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk agreed the discussion regarding specific monetary offers should not be held during the open meeting.
The Loudoun Times-Mirror

Arlington County doesn’t always get public engagement right — but officials say the county is doing better than it did a few years ago. The pandemic has served as an impetus for accelerating changes already in progress, including a move away from exclusively in-person engagement to more virtual and hybrid community outreach options. Earlier this year, a typo on a public hearing notice promoted the wrong date, adding to a continuing conversation by County Board members who have critiqued the engagement process. And even online engagement has been critiqued for attracting a narrow set of interested parties rather than a broad swath of the public. Respondents to a recent survey about historic preservation, for instance, were overwhelmingly older, white homeowners.

A Loudoun County judge threw out one of two counts against the father of a young sexual assault victim who was dragged screaming from a school board hearing a year ago. The arrest of Scott Smith in May 2021, and the attack on his 16-year-old daughter at school, helped spark the national parents' rights movement and sweep Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin into power. On Monday, a Loudoun County Circuit Court judge dismissed the obstruction and resisting count against Smith, with prejudice, citing an apparent clerical error by the General District Court judge who had previously convicted him. Smith still faces a disorderly conduct charge. "One charge down, one to go," Smith's lawyer William Stanley, a Republican state senator, said on Monday. "And we're expecting to be victorious on the obstruction of justice charge. He was well within his rights what he did that day. He has every right to stand up as a parent and say, 'You're wrong, you're not being truthful.' Is that creating a disorder? I think not." He said the sheriff's deputies who restrained Smith at the school board were violating his free speech rights, and that he had a legal justification to resist.

stories of national interest

"It would constitute one of the greatest breaches of security in the history of the Court."

Even in a town of leaks like Washington, DC, the Supreme Court is known as being exceedingly tight-lipped. What happens behinds closed doors generally stays there.  That all changed Monday, when an unknown source leaked a major Supreme Court draft about abortionto Politico. While stories of internal strife and a few decisions have made their way to the press, never before has an entire draft opinion been released widely like this. Jonathan Turley, Shapiro Chair of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, wrote on Twitter that the leak was "nothing short of breathtaking." "It would constitute one of the greatest breaches of security in the history of the Court," he said.  Chief Justice Roberts is likely to order a full-blown investigation involving the FBI to determine the source, according to CBS, which cited anonymous sources. 
Business Insider