Transparency News, 6/2/21


June 2, 2021
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state & local news stories
Arlington County is taking steps toward making virtual meeting participation a post-pandemic option for residents, staff and local officials. “We are all trying to figure out what worked really well about virtual engagement and adapting it,” County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol tells ARLnow. The board expects to transition back to in-person meetings in June or July, Cristol said. But hybrid formats, such as in-person board and commission meetings with virtual public comments, could be here to stay. County Board member Libby Garvey said in an email that the capital improvement proposal would be a foundational step toward “being able to livestream every commission and committee meeting.”

Christiansburg Councilwoman Johana Hicks is again under scrutiny, and her colleagues have drafted a resolution of reprimand. The resolution against Hicks for what’s being considered as a code of ethics violation has been drafted and the Town Council plans to discuss the matter in the coming weeks. The resolution, which says council has a duty to citizens to “avoid the appearance of impropriety,” is a culmination of ethical concerns other council members have raised toward Hicks over the past year. The document, for example, makes reference to some past social media comments from Hicks that her colleagues found problematic. The disclosure of the resolution came upon another spat between Hicks and her fellow council members, a thread of emails between them in which she in one reply told a councilman to “bite” her after that council member referenced her “blatant lies” and other issues.
The Roanoke Times

Virginia lawyers who serve in the General Assembly enjoy outsized powers and privileges in their interactions with the judges who rule on their cases. But any regulation would be impractical, many of them say. In Virginia, lawyer-legislators can have a major role in picking the judges who will decide their cases, since majority party caucuses traditionally defer to local members on judicial selection. Under the right circumstances, a single lawmaker can put a lawyer on the hometown bench or block re-appointment of a sitting judge. Virginia is one of only two states – South Carolina is the other – where the state legislature elects judges. Lawyer-legislators also wield the power to repeatedly delay litigation by invoking a legislative privilege statute. It’s a tactic deemed necessary by litigators who serve in the Assembly, but there are no limits on the use of such legislative continuances. None of the ethics rules for Virginia lawyers expressly mentions the singular relationship between lawyer-legislators and judges they help select. Likewise, the canons of ethical conduct for judges are silent on standards for a judge when a political patron appears as counsel. No Virginia court ruling, attorney general’s opinion, Virginia State Bar legal ethics opinion or other guidance attempts to define when the appearance of special influence requires either a judge or lawyer to step aside. But several lawyer-legislators say they don’t see undue influence at play when lawyer-legislators go to court, and they insist the legislative continuance privilege is essential for legislators who litigate.
Virginia Lawyers Weekly

State officials suspended funding earlier this month for JAUNT, the bus service that serves Louisa County, while they investigate how the organization spent money on business trips in the U.S. and overseas. The decision followed the resignation of former Chief Executive Officer Brad Sheffield in December amid news reports that he spent lavishly on first-class plane tickets, hotels and restaurants on trips to France and England in 2019 and 2020. Interim CEO Karen Davis accompanied Sheffield on at least one of the trips, according to the online news publication Charlottesville Tomorrow. Receipts released by JAUNT in response to a freedom of information request by Charlottesville Tomorrow show that Sheffield spent $7,275 on an Air France flight from New York to Paris. The ticket was for a private suite only available on certain planes. Sheffield also spent more than $11,000 on a week-long hotel stay in Las Vegas for him and colleagues.
The Central Virginian

Dumfries Town Council has increased pay 58% to 87.5% for its members. The council voted 5-0 to implement different levels of raises for the mayor, vice mayor and council members. Council member Cydny Neville abstained and council member Tyrone Brown was absent. Town Manager Keith Rogers said the money will come from small reductions within the town administration, planning, community development and council travel and training budgets to accommodate the changes. Some council members did not comment on the proposal before voting in favor.
stories from around the country
It will take years of results from Freedom of Information requests and litigation to discover the depths of the failures with the federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Justice Office of Inspector General has released multiple reports on the BOP’s reaction to COVID-19 and those reviews have been quite critical of the agency.