Transparency News 6/9/14

Monday, June 9, 2014

State and Local Stories
Republicans appear to have outmaneuvered Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state budget standoff by persuading a Democratic senator to resign his seat, at least temporarily giving the GOP control of the chamber and possibly dooming the governor’s push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) will announce his resignation Monday, effective immediately, paving the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission, three people familiar with the plan said Sunday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Washington Post

According to Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, "The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government." The act will be "liberally construed," the law reads, "to afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government." In Isle of Wight County, however, closed-door discussions come before the Pledge of Allegiance. Area governments pressed to toe the line between transparency and discretion spent dozens of hours in the past year choosing the latter by entering closed session to discuss public business. The Daily Press reviewed agendas, minutes and videos produced by eight area cities and counties during a 13-month period starting with March 2013 to determine how often the public bodies went into closed session, the reasons they gave for doing so and, where possible, the amount of time they spent behind closed doors.
Daily Press

U.S. railroads forced to turn over details of their volatile crude oil shipments are asking states to sign agreements not to disclose the information. But some states are refusing, saying Thursday that the information shouldn't be kept from the public. Federal officials last month ordered railroads to make the disclosures after a string of fiery tank-car accidents in North Dakota, Alabama, Virginia and Quebec, where 47 people died when a runaway oil train exploded in the town of Lac-Megantic. State emergency officials said communities need to know about the trains and the proposed agreements would violate open-records laws.
News & Advance

Until his selection as chairman in January, James M. “Jim” Holland was seen as the most affable, easygoing member of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors. Since then, his temperament during meetings has shifted. Holland, the Dale District representative, exerts authority with a more stern, heavy-handed style that has at times stifled debate and left some colleagues visibly annoyed. Holland’s style — which has included frequent monologues on leadership and chiding board members who speak without first receiving his permission — hasn’t bothered all of his colleagues. The board’s own rules call for board members to wait for the chairman to recognize them.

After months of data diving, a team of state auditors has discovered a deep-rooted pattern of lax financial oversight at the agency that runs Virginia's state parks and land preservation efforts. Their report, which will be released online today, identifies 93 problems, such as improper state credit card use by employees, procurement policy violations, and roughly $500,000 in unpaid taxes. The new agency head calls the discoveries "the worst I have ever seen" in a state audit.

A federal judge on Friday partly granted former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s request to subpoena communications between Maureen McDonnell’s former chief of staff and Jonnie R. Williams Sr., former CEO of Star Scientific. Maureen McDonnell’s former top aide, Mary-Shea Sutherland, says Williams agreed to help her leave her state job by becoming the lead client at a consultancy, but he later reneged, according to a draft letter she wrote to Williams in January 2012 after leaving her state position.


National Stories

The confidential status of Michigan gun records is reaffirmed in legislation that passed the state House on Thursday. The bills would codify a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court decision that found the disclosure of gun registry records to be "a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy." The legislation would amend the Michigan handgun law to exempt all firearms records, including previously protected concealed-carry permit records, from Freedom of Information Act requests. The information would still be available to law enforcement officials for certain purposes.
Daily Journal

State and county tax officials must turn over computerized tax assessment data to the public or business owners, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The court overturned a January 2013 ruling in Kanawha County Circuit Court finding that computer-assisted mass appraisal files used by county assessors to help determine home values were exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act. State and county tax officials argued that the data included sensitive information that might include whether a homeowner had a burglar alarm, whether a home was vacant because the homeowner was in a nursing home or other private information. Roger Hurlbert, owner of Sage Information Services, originally went to court after the state Tax Commission refused to turn over the computerized data. State tax officials argued they were not the custodians of the records under the Freedom of Information Act. (Note: Hurlbert was one of the plaintiffs that challenged Virginia’s out-of-state requester limitation in Virginia.)
Charleston Gazette

Without giving a reason, members of the West Virginia Ethics Commission voted 5-4 to fire Executive Director Joan Parker at a Thursday morning meeting. The decision came after about an hour of discussion behind closed doors. Chairman Kemp Morton, who participated in the meeting by phone, said Parker was an at-will employee and that no reason needed to be given for her termination. He has “an interim executive director lined up” but wouldn’t name the individual. He said he didn’t agree with a reporter who asked if there was a lack of openness from the commission, and declined to answer further questions.
Charleston Daily Mail

So far this year, all public-sector employment growth has occurred at the local level. Here are job tallies for the year, comparing new estimates to December totals:
Local government: +48,000
State government: -2,000
Federal: -31,000

The latest papers from the Clinton White House, released Friday, show the intense preparations for the 1993 confirmation hearing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court—including the involvement by several top law firms. And the papers reveal the White House's concern that year over the potential nomination of Stephen Breyer to the high court.
National Law Journal



Hooray for Helen Dragas. The Board of Visitors member was spot-on in saying that the University of Virginia, including its governing board, should put the public interest first. Board member William H. Goodwin Jr. — with whom this newspaper also has disagreed in the past — said he did not believe there was a conflict between the public’s best interests and the university’s best interests. He’s right about that. But because the University of Virginia is a public entity, he seemed to be implying, anything done to benefit the university automatically must benefit the public. That is an attitude that places the university ahead of the public. For instance, Mr. Goodwin has expressed reluctance to be candid with the public regarding BOV decisions. We do not consider that in the public interest.
Daily Progress