Transparency News 5/6/19



May 6, 2019


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state & local news stories


"Nothing in the law forbids release of the report, or portions of it."

It’s unclear if the commissioner of the Department of Social Services implemented all the findings of a human resources consultant hired last year to investigate allegations of bullying in the agency’s headquarters office. The state spent $44,487.50 on the investigation. Agency Commissioner S. Duke Storen has refused to release any part of the report. Nothing in the law forbids release of the report, or portions of it. Storen, through a spokeswoman, cited the discretionary attorney-client privilege provision of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act in withholding it.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

A 2017 legal opinion would appear to turn on its head the basis for why some would argue the Tourism Council isn’t a public body. It found the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, of which the Tourism Council is now a part, is a public body. The almost two-year-old opinion, written by the staff of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, is noteworthy because it picks away at the premise that the Tourism Council, which was created in 2018, isn’t a public body because it is part of the alliance. Up until this week, the alliance’s board chairwoman wasn’t aware anyone disputed the alliance’s understanding that it isn’t a public body.
The Virginia Gazette

Front Royal Town Attorney Doug Napier said the town is likely to file litigation against the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority because the town’s Freedom of Information Act Request seeking the findings of a forensic audit into the EDA’s finances was denied. The town is seeking a report detailing the findings of the audit conducted by Cherry Bekaert, which the EDA commissioned in September 2018. In May 2018, it was learned that the town was owed $291,000 stemming from overpayments on debt service. In denying the request, County and EDA attorney Dan Whitten cited FOIA exemptions including the fact that the preliminary report includes “criminal investigative files” related to possible prosecution; that it is “legal memoranda and other work product complied specifically for use in litigation;” and that the information is protected by attorney-client privilege. Napier said it is likely that the town will file litigation against the EDA sometime early next week.
The Northern Virginia Daily

The Automatic License Plate Reader system used by the Fairfax County Police Department to collect and store license plate data of non-criminals violates a state data privacy law, a Fairfax County circuit judge has ruled. The decision comes after Judge Robert J. Smith had previously granted summary judgment for the department, finding that license plate data is not personal information and that therefore, the reader system in question was not subject to the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act. Smith said that while the reader system by itself does not grant access to specific personal information like names, phone numbers or other identifying particulars, because it is connected to a computer system available to officers that is also linked to DMV, state and federal criminal information, the link to personal information exists.
Virginia Lawyers Weekly

As renovations have halted on the Afton Inn in the midst of confusion regarding the project’s financing, Front Royal Town Council will discuss funding options for the project during a closed session at its 7 p.m. Monday meeting. The Afton Inn was also discussed by Town Council during closed sessions on Feb. 25 and April 22. The agenda for Monday’s meeting states the matter is going into closed session because any public discussions would adversely affect the town’s “bargaining position or negotiating strategy.”
The Northern Virginia Daily

995 lobbyists registered in Virginia last year. How many have been at it for more than a decade? What % of clients make campaign contributions?
Virginia Public Access Project
NOTE (for reference when looking at the above charts): VCOG's Megan Rhyne has 10+ years, represents one single-interest client that does not make political contributions. 



stories of national interest

Though the data has yet to be released, Melanie Pustay, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), expects 2018 was another record-breaking year for Freedom of Information Act requests. That means additional burdens on FOIA staff governmentwide, greater difficulty in reducing existing backlogs, and an interest in new ways of handling the increasing demand. She said more personnel are always helpful, but the real innovation she sees comes from the IT side. Artificial intelligence is one new method to increase efficiency in processing FOIA requests in which Pustay sees particular promise. For example, discovery tools can be used to spot duplicate emails or run search terms faster and more effectively than humans could.
Federal News Network

Journalists and concerned citizens file hundreds of thousands of Freedom of Information Act Requests each year, and government officials continue to find new and unique ways to avoid complying. Each year since 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit dedicated to free speech and transparency, publishes The Foilies, a list of the “year’s worst in government transparency.” The 2019 list contains some doozies, but perhaps none more absurd than what happened to ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman: ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman has been digging deep into the child welfare system and what happens when child abuse results in death. While following up on a series of strangulations, she requested a copy of a case file from the St. Joseph County Superior Court in Indiana. Apparently, the clerk on the other end simply took the entire file and ran everything through a scanner. That’s right, the clerk sent her a photo of a CD-ROM but not the contents within.
The Daily Wire

The National Freedom of Information Coalition concluded its 2019 FOI Summit in Dallas recently. The annual two-day conference features presentations from open government experts and practitioners on trending open government issues in state and local public institutions. This year’s event also celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the summit and NFOIC. A diverse group of speakers and topics highlighted the sessions. Four new members were inducted into the State Open Government Hall of Fame. New features and formats were introduced, and selection of a new board president highlight the 2019 summit.


quote_2.jpg"Discovery tools can be used to spot duplicate emails or run search terms faster and more effectively than humans could."


editorials & columns

quote_3.jpg"But the promise of transparency is no substitute for a legal obligation for it."

Over the past several weeks, we have written a few stories about the Tourism Council and its members’ apparent confusion about whether or not the group is a public body and subject to Virginia’s open meetings and Freedom of Information laws. As a reminder, the Tourism Council was created under the umbrella of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance last year as part of SB 942 which — as I’m sure you recall — raised the sales tax in Williamsburg, James City and York counties. The bill sends half of that money to the Tourism Council to market the Historic Triangle to overnight visitors, and the other half to the localities to use as they deem best. To its credit, the Tourism Council so far has operated as if it were a public body: its meetings are open and there is a public comment period. The website posts meeting announcements and agendas. Jeff Wassmer, Tourism Council board chairman and a York supervisor, acknowledged the group has acted in a transparent way and expects that would continue. But the promise of transparency is no substitute for a legal obligation for it.
The Virginia Gazette