Transparency News 7/22/19



July 22, 2019


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state & local news stories


"All of this information and more could be released by city and police officials. But they are choosing to withhold it."

There are more than 10 hours of police body camera footage from the scene of the deadliest shooting in Virginia Beach history. But the public can't see it. It's the same with information about what led the police to the shooter's house years before the killings.
And the nearly four dozen calls to 911 about Building 2 at the Municipal Center on the day of the shooting? The public can't hear those either. All of this information and more could be released by city and police officials. But they are choosing to withhold it. Since the May 31 shooting, in which 12 people were killed and four wounded, The Virginian-Pilot has filed more than five dozen records requests to the city and its police department under the state's Freedom of Information Act. Some are pending. At least half have been granted in part or full. About a quarter were denied, with officials frequently citing exemptions in the state law that allow — but do not require — them to withhold information that is part of a criminal investigation or personnel record.
The Virginian-Pilot

Charlottesville officials have charged at least $20,616 to city credit cards in the first half of 2019 and $136,000 in the past two years. This year’s charges are for expenses including dry cleaning, books, gift cards and meals with residents. The information is based on credit card statements for cards registered to specific city employees, not entire departments, obtained by The Daily Progress under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The Daily Progress

The Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute wants to know why the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants to track media influencers. The civil liberties group is filing a Freedom of Information Act request asking for all contracts entered into the media monitoring services. The institute says if implemented, the surveillance system would create a media influencer database for content created and posted by journalists, editors, social media influencers and bloggers.

A prospective merger between two media rivals — Tysons-based Gannett Co. Inc. and GateHouse Media LLC — could create the largest newspaper group in the United States by titles owned and by circulation. Terms of the proposed deal have not been disclosed. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that GateHouse is in talks to acquire Gannett via a cash-and-stock deal. The combined papers own 265 U.S. daily newspapers with a combined circulation of 8.7 million. Each owns Virginia-based newspapers. Gannett owns Tysons-based USA Today as well as The News Leader in Staunton, while GateHouse’s sizeable portfolio includes Richmond-based Virginia Lawyers Weekly and The Progress-Index of Petersburg. Bill Oglesby, an associate professor at VCU’s Richard C. Robertson School of Media and Culture, says the merger of the two companies makes sound business sense because of the economies of scale. Yet, it signals a reduction of media jobs ahead. “The bottom line is there [will be] fewer jobs and less competition,” he says.
Virginia Business

The status of a Republican-leaning Virginia legislative district that suddenly has no Republican candidate remained unclear Friday as the State Board of Elections met behind closed doors to discuss the situation. The elections board emerged after 20 minutes, took no action, and declined to comment on the possible fate of Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, who wasn’t considered at risk of losing his re-election bid until he abruptly withdrew as a candidate this week, before the board could rule on whether to accept his late campaign paperwork. Elections board members refused to answer questions Friday on the possibility of Freitas being renominated.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Members of the Warren County Coalition held an open meeting on Saturday to discuss the process of recalling certain members of the Front Royal Town Council and Warren County Board of Supervisors. This meeting comes as more citizens of Front Royal and Warren County grow frustrated over the findings of the ongoing investigation of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority and the feeling their elected officials aren’t representing them in local issues. Recalling an official is a procedure where voters can remove certain elected officials before their term is up. The process includes a petition to be signed by citizens who want the elected officials out of office.
The Northern Virginia Daily

Front Royal Interim Mayor Matt Tederick said during a Thursday town-county liaison meeting that he believes the town can force the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority's dissolution and subsequently receive half of the authority’s assets. Warren County Board of Supervisors Chairman Dan Murray said: “don’t threaten, please.”  Murray said making any decision during the Thursday meeting with no citizens present would be “wrong” and further to the criticism that the local government lacks transparency. He added that the supervisors are being transparent and they themselves do not know anything because the FBI has not shared any aspects of its investigation with local officials.
The Northern Virginia Daily


stories of national interest

When The Wake Weekly requested public records from the town of Youngsville (North Carolina) pertaining to recent personnel changes at the police department, the newspaper’s staff was shocked when the town asked for $70,000 to provide them. The request, made earlier this month, dropped dramatically on Friday — to an estimate of $15,000. But the situation between the newspaper and the Franklin County town has spurred debate about public records and who should bear the cost to produce them. Town Administrator Phil Cordeiro said in an interview with The News & Observer that he supports open government and the role of the press. But the newspaper’s request was broad and would capture records that aren’t public, he said, such as employees’ medical information. As a result, he said processing it would require substantial time and technical expertise to identify all the records and review them so nonpublic information could be withheld. The public records law doesn’t allow public agencies to charge for the cost of separating nonpublic information from public records.
The News & Observer

A hearing was held Wednesday in a case involving a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by a West Virginia attorney in an attempt to find out how RISE program funds were used after the 2016 floods. The hearing was on a motion to dismiss filed in the case. WVDOC filed a motion to dismiss the case on June 25, arguing Bren J. Pomponio, an attorney and co-director with Mountain State Justice, failed to give the defendant 30 days notice, as required by West Virginia code when filing a lawsuit against a state agency. WVDOC claims Pomponio's allegation that the agency did not respond to his FOIA requests is untrue and that it acknowledged receipt of the request and advised him that it would need additional time to respond to the request. The WVDOC claimed that it also did not refuse the second request.
West Virginia Record

A police officer in Lansing, Michigan, who uttered a number of racial slurs has been fired. Leonel Rangel, who is Hispanic, had been cited by the Lansing Police Department (LPD) for a series of comments he made last November. The revelations only came to light following a freedom of information request by the State Journal. Initially, Lansing's attorney office had ruled that disclosing the details of the case "would have a chilling effect upon internal investigations."

Two months after San Francisco officers used a crowbar to raid a journalist's home and seize his phone records, a Superior Court judge has ruled against police. The raid was part of an investigation into who leaked a police report on the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi to the ABC7 I-Team and other media outlets. Dan Noyes is back with this major development. The judge also revealed Thursday that police investigators did not inform her that Bryan Carmody was a journalist and thereby protected under California's Shield Law when they asked her to approve the search warrant. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Rochelle East ruled Thursday that a search warrant for Carmody's phone records should never have been issued.


quote_2.jpg"The [North Carolina] public records law doesn’t allow public agencies to charge for the cost of separating nonpublic information from public records."


editorials & columns

quote_3.jpg"[The meeting was] cloak and dagger maneuvering out of sight of the public — and in fact, out of sight of other commissioners.”

A CHICAGO FIRM with extensive experience conducting in depth investigations will be heading the independent inquiry into the shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on May 31 which left 13 people, nearly all of whom were city employees, dead. Critically, the city says the firm will "have unrestricted access to all employees, reports, documents, and other records necessary to complete the independent review." It’s important that be true, or else there’s little reason to proceed with this exercise. It would be welcome were the city to make public the report and all supporting documents as soon as they are ready for release. Providing that information to residents will allow the community to draw its own conclusions and ensure everyone has the facts as Virginia Beach, and Hampton Roads, continues to heal.
The Virginian-Pilot

I could write a lot about the recent actions of the Sullivan County (Tennessee) Commission, but for this column I’m going to focus on the blatant violation earlier this month of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act by at least three county officials. During a particularly fractious budget session with little progress, Mayor Richard Venable called a recess and retreated to his office, where he spoke privately with at least two commissioners. When they returned, one of the commissioners proposed a 2-cent property tax increase, which was then approved with no discussion. The director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, who contacted the Herald Courier when she heard about the meeting, described what went down as “cloak and dagger maneuvering out of sight of the public — and in fact, out of sight of other commissioners.” It was a step backward.
Susan Cameron, Bristol Herald Courier

The dark clouds that cast a shadow over the people’s business in Missouri might be breaking. A sliver of sunshine is breaking through. On Thursday, Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) filed two open records lawsuits alleging that government officials in St. Louis County and Jefferson County were breaking a law intended to allow citizens to track the decisions government officials make on their behalf. It is rare that the attorney general — charged with enforcing the state’s Sunshine Law — goes to court to uphold the people’s right to know. Hawley’s lawsuits signal a welcome change. But if Hawley — who as a law professor fought Sunshine Law disclosure — wants these lawsuits to be the beginning of a new era of compliance, and not just a quick headline in his nascent candidacy for U.S. Senate, he’s going to have to address a nagging problem: His office is standing in the way of resolution of another Sunshine Law case.
Tony Messenger, St. Louis Post-Dispatch