Transparency News, 6/1/21


June 1, 2021
follow us on TwitterFacebook & Instagram

state & local news stories
FOIA fees in Virginia
A VCOG pop-up website
Like many American cities, Portsmouth hasn’t had an in-person city council meeting since March 2020. But as coronavirus restrictions are eased, City Hall has a plan to get closer to normal. Council will have one last meeting through webcams June 8 before returning to chambers June 22. City Manager Angel Jones unveiled a reopening plan at last Tuesday’s council meeting. Here are some key dates from that timeline: June 22: The Portsmouth City Council will have its first meeting in City Hall after what will be 15 months of mostly seeing one another through a computer screen. Jones said the public will be allowed into the meeting room, but likely not at full capacity. Councilman Mark Whitaker asked if it would be possible to maintain an option for residents to call in with their comments during the meeting for those who can’t or would prefer not to attend in person. Jones replied that she’s consulting with staff to see if it can be done. Some close observers of council meetings — or at least some of the most vocal ones — likely will be pleased with the change. The comments section of the Facebook Live stream of meetings have become a Tuesday night gathering space, drawing plenty of quips and questions. Last Tuesday’s meeting drew 266 comments, and more than a few people have been using that space to advocate for the council to return to City Hall or point out faux-pas made in the virtual setting.
The Virginian-Pilot

Pam Carter skimmed through the Facebook post again. Something didn't click. Little did she know, the post lighting up the screen in her hand would lead county staff, citizens and journalists down a rabbit hole of data to find where exactly funding body cameras came into the conversation in Augusta County over the past several years — and who had a seat at the table. After Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith's Facebook post on May 19 in response to media requests regarding the department's lack of body cameras, the answer seemed straightforward — money. Year after year he'd requested money for dash cams and body cameras from the Board of Supervisors, he wrote; the county just wasn't willing, or able, to offer up the money for their law enforcement.  Pam Carter, a member of Augusta County Board of Supervisors couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.  In the past three years, she couldn't remember a single time that the sheriff's office had asked the board to fund body cameras. The News Leader is looking into whether or not the board of supervisors reviewed documents released by the sheriff during the budget process or specifically discussed funding body cameras for the sheriff's department. 
News Leader

editorials & opinion

"Fees especially burden people of low income, who lack the resources to pay for public data."
Currently, when people try to obtain public records, state law allows governments and their agencies to charge fees. The charges are intended to cover the time it takes staff members to find the records, the cost of copying those records and other necessary work. But those charges can be prohibitive. Many critics suspect that some public agencies and governments are using fees to deter Freedom of Information Act requests. Supporters argue that governments are justified in requiring reimbursement for costs associated with requests; otherwise, too much staff time and other resources can be tied up. The problem is particularly acute for small governments and agencies with few resources to begin with. What’s more, in the past, governments have faced so-called nuisance requests that were not always made in good faith. Information once was free to requesters; the fee system was instituted in part to deal with this costly issue. At the intersection of principle and practicality, some gates may be necessary to conserve public resources and prevent wasteful fishing trips instigated by requesters who are not operating from good faith. But remember this, too: Fees especially burden people of low income, who lack the resources to pay for public data.
The Daily Progress

In the course of their work, police officers encounter people who are intoxicated, distressed, injured or abused. The officers routinely ask for key identifying information like addresses, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers, and they frequently enter people’s homes and other private spaces. With the advent of police body cameras, this information is often captured in police video recordings – which some states’ open-records laws make available to the public. As I discuss in my book, one possible solution could be redacting personal information about victims, witnesses, bystanders and even suspects, as long as it is not related to law enforcement officer conduct. Other options include creating independent oversight groups to review footage before its release, giving victims and their families access to footage, and erring on the side of nondisclosure when body cameras record in private spaces or in particularly sensitive contexts.
Bryce C. Newell, Governing