Transparency News, 6/29/20


June 29, 2020
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state & local news stories
"Officials confirmed they have some 16,700 pages of use-of-force records covering part of 2014 to earlier this month but refused to make them public."
A group has planned a sit-in Monday at Norfolk City Hall calling for transparency from the Norfolk police department. The sit-in is a response to a Pilot story about the department and the city denying Freedom of Information Act requests about police use-of-force reports from the past decade. “We believe police transparency is going to be a cornerstone of reform,” said Tyler Woodard, who is involved in organizing the protest Monday. “We don’t particularly see a reason why you can’t tell people why force is being used, to what degree, how often and by who,” Woodard said. Officials told The Pilot they destroyed reports issued from 2010 through part of 2014 under the state’s record retention law that allows them to purge records. Officials confirmed they have some 16,700 pages of use-of-force records covering part of 2014 to earlier this month but refused to make them public.
The Virginian-Pilot

After facing a rebellion from members and chairs of advisory commissions, the Arlington County Board has revised rules for holding meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the two biggest changes from the original plans: • Commission chairs (apparently) will no longer have to seek county-staff permission to hold meetings. id format, in addition to the previously announced “virtual”-only arrangement. The changes announced then came after a large number of commission chairs publicly complained that County Board members and senior staff lacked vigor in working to re-start commission meetings, most of which had been shut down since March.

To give readers a fuller picture of the accidental drowning death of Leesburg 16-year-old Fitz Thomas, the Times-Mirror is publishing 911 calls from the incident. While the recordings are within the public purview through the Freedom of Information Act, the Times-Mirror also reached out to Thomas's family to receive their blessing in disclosing the tapes. The Thomas family obliged. The audio will likely be painful for many people to listen to, but we believe in the public's right to hear the calls, in part because county policy has been changed as a result of the situation. 
Loudoun Times-Mirror

After hearing from the town attorney and an interested citizen Judge Brian Patton took no action on appointing Jeff Hurst to fill the vacant seat on the Richlands Town Council. Patton, chief of the 29th judicial district took the case after Rich Patterson recused himself.  Jack S. Hurley, Jr. had earlier recused himself after rescinding an appointment of Hurst he made last week. Citizen Laura Mollo said multiple nominations were allowed but the town refused to accept the nomination of Karen Deel. Mollo said the public had been denied input because council kept recessing instead of adjourning and she was told by the mayor time for public comment had passed.
Southwest Virginia Today


editorials & columns
Two cases show "that weaknesses in VFOIA compliance can impact not only public knowledge, but public safety."
The Norfolk Police Department could release its use-of-force reports. There’s nothing in state law preventing the agency or the city from doing so. What’s more, a recent records request for those documents filed by Virginian-Pilot reporter Jonathan Edwards was a perfect opportunity for the department to demonstrate transparency at a time when protests across the nation — and here in Hampton Roads — are calling for exactly that. Instead, the department and the city are choosing secrecy, relying on an exemption in the state’s Freedom of Information Act that puts that choice in the hands of officials. There is no requirement that these be released, but nothing that prohibits it. It’s that sort of behavior — the reflexive “no” to requests for pertinent, relevant and important information that would serve the public and bolster accountability — that contributes to a climate of distrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
The Virginian-Pilot

In the 52 years since Virginia Gov. Mills Godwin signed the Virginia Freedom of Information Act into law, citizens have been able to keep watch on public officials and actions that would otherwise be kept in the dark. Two recent cases in Southwest Virginia have shed light on government practices that disenfranchised residents. The importance of transparent government is always paramount; during a pandemic, open government is the only way to protect our communities. [Two cases show] that weaknesses in VFOIA compliance can impact not only public knowledge, but public safety. We need responsive governments, especially in times of crisis.
Bristol Herald Courier

By now you have likely heard or read about the June 17th meeting of the Rappahannock County Planning Commission during which four members who were physically present in the courthouse voted to prevent three members who had joined online — myself included — from participating in the meeting.  Much of the conversation about this event has focused on its legality. While the legality of the vote is certainly important, to focus exclusively on whether the commission had the legal right to vote as they did is to overlook a broader and important question that I and our elected and appointed public servants should be asked. Why did they do it? What interests of the public were served by the vote to exclude us? 
Gary Light, Rappahannock News

At 8:20 a.m., on June 25, this tweet appeared on the KET Public Affairs Twitter account: "Today's legislative meetings will not be broadcast or live streamed. Video recordings of the meetings will be available on the LRC's YouTube channel within one to two business day." This, like other serious violations of Kentucky’s open government laws, might have gone unchallenged. Citizens, as well as access advocates have learned to pick their battles. But it is worthy of note when the Kentucky General Assembly ignores a law it enacted in March, 2020, and that it expects all other Kentucky agencies to strictly observe. Having watched as public agencies across the Commonwealth endeavored to comply with those sections of SB 150 — the Coronavirus Relief Bill — relating to public meetings, the Kentucky Open Government Coalition found this blatant disregard for the law by lawmakers deeply offensive.
Amye Bensenhaver, Forward Kentucky