Transparency News, 6/15/2022


June 15, 2022

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state & local news stories


"When you have something to hide, you tell ’em that it’s gonna be a thousand dollars to get it."

Video of the (very brief) FOIA Council meeting last week. I made comments at ~ the 21:00 mark, where I mention the model legislation the Uniform Law Commission is considering regarding electronic meetings during emergencies and where I urge the council's legislative members to be involved in the council's study committees. (Note, the audio cuts out here and there.)
FOIA Council

A group of principals want the Virginia Beach School Board to change its public comment policy so that division personnel are not subjected to “slanderous opinions” and “unsubstantiated accusations.” A letter signed by the Virginia Beach Association of Elementary School Principals and the Virginia Beach Association of Secondary School Principals requested a change to the board’s policy, which allows community members to discuss whatever they want in the recorded and widely shared formal meeting. It asks the board to make it so division personnel names can’t be shared during the televised portion of a board meeting and uphold the division’s policy which protects confidential personnel matters. According to the letter, the current practice can create long-term negative effects for the personnel named including “hindering future employment opportunities” and “scarring the reputation of staff members with their school community.” In the past, public comments relating to items on the agenda were televised. There was also time for community members to speak on non-agenda items, but this was done off-camera. This changed last year, allowing all matters to be discussed on-camera.
The Virginian-Pilot

Another attempt at hiring ex-Police Chief Tonya Chapman as Portsmouth’s next city manager was successful a second time around Tuesday with another divided vote among the City Council. Grievances among council members were on public display Tuesday night, with council members taking direct aim at each other. Mayor Shannon Glover took took jabs at council member Mark Whitaker, who championed Chapman’s hiring, and even tried to get him removed from the meeting. Woodard’s vote proved most critical again on Tuesday. He boomeranged back to his old alliance and served as the tie-breaker by siding with Whitaker, Vice Mayor De’Andre Barnes and council member Paul Battle to appoint Chapman. Whitaker’s motion to hire Chapman also stipulated that the city attorney and personnel committee will negotiate contract details. Both Barnes and Whitaker comprise the personnel committee, Glover said, and didn’t consult with the council about that provision beforehand. After the vote, tension between Glover and Whitaker erupted when Glover attempted to have Whitaker removed from the meeting by contending he was out of order. The power play failed, however, as removing Whitaker required a vote and he stayed in place thanks to the votes of his council allies.
The Virginian-Pilot
For some civic leaders in Portsmouth, the decision of a few City Council members to terminate former City Manager Angel Jones — and attempt to replace her with an ex-police chief — is the straw that broke the camel’s back. And now the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Steering Committee, the most influential political organization in the city’s Black community, is championing a recall petition to remove two of those council members from office, including one whom it previously endorsed. Members of the steering committee, along with the Concerned Citizens of Portsmouth group, stood outside City Hall on Tuesday to formally announce support for the petitions recalling Vice Mayor De’Andre Barnes and council member Mark Whitaker. Despite Portsmouth’s history of instability among its leadership, Blount said the time to take action in a recall is when leaders stop listening. Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Whitaker declined to comment but told The Virginian-Pilot he’d make a public statement at the council meeting that evening. Barnes, in a written statement, said while he’s excited to see citizens engaged and exercising their rights, there are more pressing issues worthy of focus.
The Virginian-Pilot

The Front Royal Town Council agreed on Monday to pay $150,000 in legal fees to its self-insurance carrier related to undisclosed litigation. Council members voted 5-0 at a special meeting in favor of a motion to amend the fiscal 2022 budget to use $150,000 from the general fund reserves as a payment to the Virginia Risk Sharing Association for legal fees related to litigation. Council members did not discuss or comment on the motion before the vote. Finance Director B.J. Wilson responded by email Tuesday to questions about the council’s action. “I’m sorry but we cannot discuss details of the payment to Virginia Risk Sharing Association,” Wilson states in the email. “Virginia Risk Sharing Association is the Town’s general liability/property/auto insurance and does not represent the Town in an active case.”
The Northern Virginia Daily

The Spotsylvania County School Board on Monday voted against creating a policy that would allow parents to opt their children out of being able to check out certain books from school libraries. Also on Monday, the board voted 4–3 against a motion by Council Member Nicole Cole to develop a safety policy for School Board meetings. The board approved by a 5–2 vote a motion by Council Member Rabih Abuismail to schedule a special meeting to discuss a recent social media post made by Cole shortly after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last month. The statement, which Cole posted to her personal Facebook page and has since deleted, attributed the shooting to white nationalist sentiments. Many speakers during public comments on Monday read the post aloud, decried it as racist and offensive and called for Cole to be censured. Abuismail called for the special meeting “to discuss the actions of Ms. Cole’s post.” Cole responded by saying, “My post was not part of the business of this board.” “I have every right to make a post,” she continued. “People don’t like the post. Fine. They made their comments, but for this board to take an action as if this were the business of the board is egregious. You’re trying to make it into something that it is not and I am not going to designate time for it.”
The Free Lance-Star

Former Roanoke City Councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. faces a possible penalty of 22 to 57 months in prison when sentenced later this summer for financial crimes that cast him out of office in March. How much time he might spend behind bars and an estimate of the size of his repayment obligation came to light at a bond hearing Monday at which he was denied interim release. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Sheri Mason filed a document that she said detailed unauthorized transactions totaling an estimated $200,000– half of it cash withdrawals – and said that authorities will be asking for a court order that Jeffrey pay the money back. The preliminary figure is the first public accounting of the money he stole from the Northwest Neighborhood Environmental Organization, a Roanoke nonprofit organization where Jeffrey worked as a property manager. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement in March.
The Roanoke Times

Virginia's red flag law has been used hundreds of times since taking effect nearly two years ago but there appear to be disparities in how often it's being implemented locally.  The state law, which passed despite significant pushback from gun rights advocates, creates a civil process to take guns from those who pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. At least 18 other states and Washington D.C. already have similar laws on the books. The latest data from Virginia State Police shows, that between July 2020 and May 2022, guns were seized temporarily following 258 emergency orders, which can last up to 14 days.

Clive Pettis quit the Nottoway School Board the same way he served for the past six and a half years — by claiming much isn’t right in the division and airing new allegations while also restating prior grievances. Pettis made the announcement Thursday night near the end of an 11-minute complaint that preceded the Board going into closed session. The “MOST disturbing thing,” Pettis recalled, occurred in February when he went to the School Board office “in a cordial way” and picked-up copies he had requested of the Superintendent’s contract. It was there, he has claimed, he discovered something amiss on a signature line and then, moments later, saw on the Clerk’s computer that the contract had been modified electronically without Board approval. Pettis also addressed complaints earlier in the meeting by member Bill Outlaw, who said requests filed under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) — are exhausting staff’s time. Pettis countered, “If you did the right thing, you wouldn’t have to charge out-of-this-world fees for FOIA requests. You just hand them the package. But when you have something to hide, you tell ’em that it’s gonna be a thousand dollars to get it.”

stories of national interest

"The bill would make it a criminal offense for any intermediary, such as a law firm, to request records on behalf of an otherwise-prohibited person or entity."

Republican members of Congress are introducing legislation to bar foreign nationals and entities from obtaining government records under the Freedom of Information Act, Axios has learned. The bill's sponsors say it would prevent potentially adversarial foreign actors from accessing sensitive government records. FOIA lawyers are writing it off as a solution in search of a problem. The bill is set to be introduced this week by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). It would restrict FOIA requests to American citizens, permanent residents, companies headquartered in the U.S. and other limited categories such as migrants seeking copies of their federal immigration files. It would also entirely bar any subsidiary of companies based in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria or Venezuela from filing FOIA requests. The bill would make it a criminal offense for any intermediary, such as a law firm, to request records on behalf of an otherwise-prohibited person or entity.

editorials & columns

"In an environment as heated as the current one, elected officials must be aware of how their personal opinions will play out in public."

The Spotsylvania County School Board is at a crossroad. Monday night’s meeting revealed a School Board badly broken. We have opined sharply in the past about certain members’ repeated failures to execute their roles responsibly, and we have seen no indication that their actions are going to improve. But the problems we see now are not the result of those members alone. The tensions between these board members have become deeply personal. And they play out in ways both small and large.Board member Nicole Cole’s recent comments on Facebook in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, shooting have inflamed both School Board and community members. While Cole’s misidentifying the Uvalde gunman has drawn complaints, arguably more upsetting to her fellow board members was her assertion that local supervisors—presumably those in Spotsylvania County—were colluding with “GOP School Board members to create chaos in public schools,” again, presumably, members of the Spotsylvania School Board. Cole made these comments on her personal Facebook page, and not from the dais. However, in an environment as heated as the current one, elected officials must be aware of how their personal opinions will play out in public.
The Free Lance-Star