Transparency News 6/4/18



June 4, 2018


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state & local news stories


"Local governments often choose to exempt these kinds of discussions from the public even when it’s not necessary."

A lawsuit in Rappahannock County is raising new questions about how much public business should be conducted in secret. At issue is the Board of Supervisors’ decision to replace an outgoing county attorney. Megan Rhyne at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government says local governments often choose to exempt these kinds of discussions from the public even when it’s not necessary.

The Strasburg Fire Department held a special meeting Thursday after an article in the Northern Virginia Daily highlighted comments from the department’s interim vice president, Milton Painter, criticizing the training of department members and the maintenance of the department’s equipment. Following publication of that article, members struck back at Painter’s assessment in emails that were obtained by the Northern Virginia Daily and that were alluded to during Thursday’s meeting.
Northern Virginia Daily

A divided Leesburg Town Council narrowly voted against holding a closed meeting Friday night to discuss allegations that Mayor Kelly Burk was seen leaving and driving away from Tuscarora Mill restaurant drunk in downtown Leesburg on May 16. Councilmen Ron Campbell and Josh Thiel called Friday's special council meeting. They say they received emails from separate people alleging that they saw Burk "barely able to walk, leave the bar area, fall down in the front parking area, and then get in her car and drive," Campbell told the Times-Mirror. During the meeting, Burk read a prepared statement denouncing the allegations as politics-driven hearsay. Burk and Campbell, both Democrats, are running for mayor this fall.
The Loudoun Times-Mirror


stories of national interest

Attorneys with the city of Portland (Oregon) are preparing to go to court in Washington state to try to stop a defense attorney from obtaining a 26-year-old police report in a child sex abuse case. It’s an unusual case because the record Portland leaders want to withhold belongs to another jurisdiction: the Clark County Sheriff’s Department. The record in question is a Portland Police investigation of child sex abuse that took place in 1992. The victim was under 12. The perpetrator, James Clark, pleaded no contest to attempted sex abuse in the third degree. The Clark County sheriff’s office received a copy of the Portland Police investigation of the incident when Clark  registered there as a sex offender.

When a group of 70 Norman (Oklahoma) residents filed various open records requests Tuesday related to the University North Park arena and entertainment district proposal, they didn’t suspect it would take long to get a response. On Thursday, the OU Foundation proved that true, rejecting the group’s records inquiry outright. In a letter addressed to attorney Fred Gipson, who filed the requests on behalf of the citizen group that includes former Mayor Cindy Rosenthal and former council member Greg Jungman, OU Foundation President Guy Patton expressed surprise at the request and denied it on the grounds that the foundation is not a public entity
The Norman Transcript

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday rejected the state's appeal to keep secret where it gets execution drugs, siding with three death row attorneys who sued for the supplier's identity. Without offering comment, the court upheld a lower court's decision that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice must release the name of its drug supplier to these attorneys. Hilary Sheard, one of the plaintiffs, applauded the decision as a win for "transparency." But she added it would likely have a "limited scope." It would likely not force the state to reveal current information about its execution drugs or supplier because Texas Legislature passed a law in 2015 allowing information about the drugs to kept secret. 
The Dallas Morning News

The possibility of allowing electronic access to court documents has opened up a debate over public information rules in Maine. Maine’s high court wants public input on plans to allow electronic access to court documents. Currently few court records are available online, and those that are include probate records and Maine Supreme Judicial Court rulings. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hold a public hearing on June 7. Maine’s judicial branch in 2016 announced a 10-year, $15 million contract with Tyler Technologies to computerize the Maine District, Superior and Supreme Judicial courts. Implementation could start next year.  But it’s unclear whether members of the public will have much access.
Central Maine

It has been more than two months since the City of Atlanta was crippled by a massive cyber attack. While some city services have recovered, other departments have not. The city continues to pay millions of dollars to outside contractors to help with the response. When the CBS46 Bulldog went digging for answers, the city refused to hand over critical information about the attack.  The list of questions for city officials is long. How long will the cyber attack last? What exactly has been lost? What attempts have been made to resolve it? How much money have taxpayers spent on the response? How have departments and leaders responded in private? The city hasn't provided answers for any of those questions, and there is no sense of when anyone will get those answers. That's because Freedom of Information Act requests related to the cyber attack are being denied.


"It would likely not force the state to reveal current information about its execution drugs or supplier because Texas Legislature passed a law in 2015 allowing information about the drugs to kept secret."


editorials & columns


"Judge James Updike recognized the media’s 30-year track record of professionally and unobtrusively giving the greater public a glimpse of the proceedings."

Jail deaths persist in Virginia — at least 21 so far this year. And this is despite reforms enacted by the General Assembly to hold jails more accountable for how they treat their prisoners.  In fact, the accountability effort might be failing.  What causes concern is the fact that the responsible agency is not releasing information about its investigations.   Under the new legislation, authority for overseeing investigations was handed over to the Board of Corrections, a panel of citizens appointed by the governor. The Board of Corrections already is in charge of jails, so the addition of investigative authority essentially means that the board is granted the power of self-policing. That creates the potential for conflict of interest.
The Daily Progress

News reports on a controversy regarding some past gift agreements at George Mason University have focused on three important, interrelated, yet distinct issues: a demand for increased transparency in agreements between the university and its private donors; opposition to accepting gifts from donors of a given political persuasion; and the question of what rights are appropriate for a university to grant donors.
We ought to be responsive to the first, stand firm against the second, and bring additional clarity to the third as a means of facilitating the other two.
Ángel Cabrera, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Last month, The News & Advance — a party to securing cameras in the courtroom during the Jens Soering case — went before now-Judge Updike, along with other media outlets, for the upcoming trial of Cristian Jose Sanchez-Gomez. In granting the media’s request, Judge James Updike recognized the intense public interest in the case and security concerns raised by both the prosecution and defense. But he also recognized the media’s 30-year track record of professionally and unobtrusively giving the greater public a glimpse of the proceedings. Some people still worry that cameras in the courtroom could impact the trial itself, but again Updike shot down those concerns. “”[I]f at any time there becomes some impact upon the trial, then in accordance with the statute, as counsel are aware, it says a presiding judge shall, at all times, have authority to prohibit, interrupt, to terminate electronic media and still photography coverage of public proceedings. So, if at any time a presiding judge says that’s it, then that’s it. But during all [these] years, I never saw that occur.”
The News & Advance