Transparency News, 7/20/20


July 20, 2020
follow us on Twitter and Facebook
state & local news stories
“I believe that the biggest benefit of a regular council meeting is the opportunity for every interested citizen to see and hear what their neighbors are saying about our local issues."
Governments across Hampton Roads, grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, have drastically reduced the ways they carry out one of their most crucial functions: soliciting public input. As a result, people haven’t been speaking to local officials as openly as they used to. Before social distancing rules were put in place to stymie the coronavirus outbreak, people in the seven cities could take the lectern at the end of most regularly scheduled public meetings and talk publicly about anything on their mind. But officials now operate under a hodgepodge of changing rules on what the public can and can’t discuss during meetings, many of which are being held virtually. “They’re doing the bare minimum they believe they can get away with,” said Mark Geduldig-Yatrofsky, a Portsmouth resident who has attended nearly every City Council meeting for decades. “I believe that the biggest benefit of a regular council meeting is the opportunity for every interested citizen to see and hear what their neighbors are saying about our local issues. This Facebook Live approach is isolating us from one another.” “Of course, all of us are trying to deal with the pandemic and make sure everybody is safe and trying to be as transparent as possible,” Portsmouth Deputy City Manager LaVoris Pace said. “There are a lot of different ways by which (residents) can provide information to us that’s far faster than having to wait for a city council meeting.”
The Virginian-Pilot

Richmond’s top prosecutor has announced a new policy in which her office will publicly name police officers indicted by a grand jury for any crime involving abuse of authority or excessive use of force “while in the performance of their duties.” Touting “transparency and accountability” on Friday, Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said the new policy is effective only “going forward.” She then refused to name an officer with a pending case set for trial in August. By law, the name of anyone charged with a crime is public, regardless of whether a grand jury has indicted. Grand juries are exempt under Virginia’s public records law, but the indictments they produce are public already. But without a news release or statement notifying the public of a specific indictment, it would require combing through each one of the grand jury dockets, and cross-referencing those names with the department’s nearly 750 sworn officers to know if an officer was charged. For reference, there are 104 individual cases going before the grand jury in August.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

A conversation between a Virginia State Police helicopter pilot and his trooper co-pilot before a crash that killed both of them referred to an aerodynamic phenomenon that a National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded was the probable cause of the fatal accident three years ago after the violent Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville. But the conversation also shows that Lt. Jay Cullen, the pilot and commander of the State Police Aviation Unit, was familiar with “vortex ring state,” even though the NTSB said it found no record that he had received “recent and recurrent training” in how to recognize and recover from the condition. In a recording state police provided to the investigation, Cullen spoke to Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates about the loss of tail rotor effectiveness, which the pilot described as “like a vortex ring state on your tail rotor.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors announced an emergency ordinance that no longer requires the county to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests within a set deadline. The original deadline for the county to respond to FOIA requests is five business days, except under certain circumstances where paper records or decades worth of information are requested. Although the language of the ordinance causes concern for some advocates, Albemarle County says nothing has really changed since it was put in place. “It becomes all the more important to be upfront and transparent, because when you’re cut off like that, that fuels all kids of fear, the speculation of uncertainty,” Virginia Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Megan Rhyne said.

Prince William County School Board Chair Babur Lateef said he hopes to have some resolution to the school board’s investigation into complaints against Superintendent Steve Walts before the summer ends. In May, Walts suspended use of his Twitter account after a complaint from a county resident regarding private messages with students, some at late hours of the night. Walts has said the account was used for official business, and has called the complaints a partisan and personal attack during his contract renewal period. According to the agenda for a school board meeting Wednesday, July 22, a closed session will be held “regarding a legal investigation involving specific personnel.”  In an interview with InsideNoVa on Friday, Lateef would only describe the closed session as dealing with a personnel matter.
stories of national interest
"The fact the justices enjoy life tenure and have little in the way of oversight to monitor their competence also makes questions about their health more urgent than for other public officials."
Questions about who has a say in shaping cities, and what that process should look like, are not new. But the shock of the coronavirus crisis, which cleared public spaces to be a kind of blank canvas, and the calls to treat those spaces with racial equity in mind could force cities to reconsider their answers. “There are a lot of urgent problems, and government needs to treat them as urgent, because that’s the only way we’ll solve them,” Ryan Russo, the director of Oakland’s Department of Transportation, said of the city’s Slow Streets program. Mr. Russo acknowledges that the city should have communicated more with the public early on. Since the program’s start, Oakland has been running an online survey of how residents use and view Slow Streets, with the results updated online. As of last week, 67 percent of people who had taken the survey were white, versus 24 percent citywide. Those survey response rates echo research on public meetings about development, conducted by the political scientists Katherine Levine Einstein, David Glick and Maxwell Palmer. The people who show up for such meetings, thus shaping what kind of housing is built, tend to be older, whiter, higher-income and homeowners. Those are the people with more time for public meetings, the flexibility to show up on a weeknight, and motivation to do so. They also wield the most power when they speak, with their homeowner’s concerns about property values at stake, or with their credentials as engineers, architects or lawyers who have read the zoning code.
The New York Times

The five-month delay that preceded Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's statement Friday [that her cancer had returned] was just the latest episode to prompt concern among courtwatchers that the justices are being too opaque about their health. Critics say the public is entitled to more information about the justices‘ medical condition. With the court sharply divided on many pivotal issues, an unexpected health crisis on the part of one justice has the potential to upend official Washington. But the fact the justices enjoy life tenure and have little in the way of oversight to monitor their competence also makes questions about their health more urgent than for other public officials.