Transparency News, 7/28/2022


July 28, 2022

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state & local news stories


"Although Stoney has the ability to release some personal records, the mayor has opted not to, as is consistent with FOIA law and the mayor’s own policy."

On Tuesday, a subcommittee of the FOIA Council met to review a bill referred to it by the 2022 General Assembly, carried by Del. Angelia Williams Graves at the request of Virginia Beach. FOIA already protects the names/addresses of those who complain about violations of local zoning and the state building and fire codes. The bill the council considered would add several local nuisance-related statutes to the list, meaning people who complain of their neighbor's inoperable car, tall grass, lack of swimming pool fencing, etc., can remain anonymous. Proponents say it will protect complainants from retaliation. VCOG pointed out it will also protect cranks who waste government time and money who make unfounded complaints.
Watch the video of the meeting here (approx. 1 hour long)

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and his press secretary Jim Nolan have chosen to withhold public records related to the July 4th mass shooting citing those records as part of the Mayor's working papers under Virginia Code.  In order to learn more about the discussions that took place surrounding the alleged mass shooting plot, the CBS 6 Problem Solvers submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to various city officials. Two weeks later, the city replied that no such records existed for certain high-level city officials. However, the city admitted that emails and text messages we requested do exist in Stoney and Nolan's records, but the Mayor's office would not release those communications as part of the Mayor's "working papers" under Virginia code. We asked the Mayor's office why they are choosing to withhold these public records, and Jim Nolan shared the following statement with Melissa Hipolit: Virginia law protects the confidentiality of the mayor’s working papers and correspondence. This long-standing policy of the administration has been consistently applied, regardless of subject matter.
Mayor Levar Stoney on Wednesday said he’s following state code by not releasing certain internal city documents related to a mass shooting plot that authorities said was planned on July 4 in Richmond. The Times-Dispatch has filed two Freedom of Information Act requests for emails and other documents from Stoney and Richmond police related to a July 6 news conference about the alleged plot and the arrest of two suspects. Other media outlets have filed similar document requests. Stoney’s office opted not to disclose several documents pertaining to the request, citing one of the 150 record exemptions outlined in the state’s open records act. “We are following the code of Virginia,” Stoney said Wednesday. However, the code Stoney referenced is permissive, not mandatory. The code states that records of this nature “may be disclosed by the custodian in his discretion, except where such disclosure is prohibited by law.” So although Stoney has the ability to release some personal records, the mayor has opted not to, as is consistent with FOIA law and the mayor’s own policy.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The FedEx Ground distribution center being built just outside Bristol is a $30 million project that will create 250 jobs, according to Washington County Administrator Jason Berry. The new center is a win for Washington County, Virginia, but it will also benefit the surrounding area, he said. According to documents obtained by Bristol Now through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality were involved in the project because the land was once a munitions site.
Bristol Now

As Norfolk officials debated plans for the revitalization of Military Circle mall earlier this year, a group of council members and city staff took an unannounced trip to a Texas arena built by one of the developers partnering with musician Pharrell Williams. Five city officials, including Mayor Kenny Alexander, flew May 19 to Austin to tour the Moody Center, a 15,000-seat arena on the University of Texas’ campus, and to negotiate with Oak View Group, the arena developer. Alexander took a separate flight from the two other council members who attended, stayed at a different hotel and took a different tour of the arena to keep from triggering the state’s open meetings law. In Virginia, the meeting of three or more council members constitutes a quorum, which would require the city to publicly advertise the gathering and follow other rules of council meetings. Alexander paid for his own airfare, lodging and for a $150 ticket to the concert — and provided the receipts from a personal finance account to The Virginian-Pilot at the newspaper’s request.
The Virginian-Pilot

A Lynchburg police officer violated a man during a traffic stop by conducting an anal cavity search in which the officer used his hand to search the man’s buttocks on the side of the road, according to a recently filed lawsuit. Another man, who has not filed a lawsuit, said the same officer searched him by putting his hand down his pants and performing an anal cavity search on the side of the road. According to online court records, that same officer did stop the man on the date in question in 2020. To learn more about the police side of these stops, ABC13 requested the incident reports through the Freedom of Information Act. In a written response regarding the plaintiff’s incident report, the department said, “there is no incident report related to the traffic stop of [redacted] on July 21, 2020 around the 1500 block of 6th Street.” As for the second accuser, the department would not release them, writing “These records are considered administrative investigative records exempted from disclosure.” ABC13 also requested all complaints made from the public to the Lynchburg Police Dept. The department also denied releasing those, again citing administrative investigative records.

Nearly two weeks after Albemarle County seized a pit bull named Niko from the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA after hours and euthanized him, against his owners’ and the SPCA’s wishes, questions remain about how and why the decision was made. County officials have thus far refused to disclose the location or provide proof of a humane euthanization process.  “No records responsive to this request exist,” reads the county’s response to a FOIA request for any contract with or receipts from a veterinarian related to Niko’s euthanasia, and for the name of the veterinarian and veterinary practice that performed the euthanization. C-VILLE Weekly’s FOIA request also asked for written documents exchanged between Albemarle County police and county executives about the dog, as well as emails between the SPCA and county police or leadership.
C-VILLE Weekly

Clarke County employees are being encouraged to report anything they perceive as illegal or unethical within county operations. Someone might reason that's common sense. But it's now officially expected under revised personnel policies recently adopted by the Clarke County Board of Supervisors. A provision in the policies now reads that, "County employees are expected to be good stewards of the public’s resources. Employees are expected to immediately report to their supervisor any illegal or fraudulent conduct, any theft of county funds or assets, abuse of county property or resources, or any other suspected fraud, waste, or abuse."
The Winchester Star

Hurt Town Council reversed course and will not be forgoing their salary during the 2022-23 fiscal year, as had been previously reported. Council voted on the decision during the July business meeting. The matter had not reached a vote in the previous meeting in June. When, in the July meeting, Mayor Gary Hodnett motioned that the council members forgo salaries and asked for a second, disagreement arose. When asked how he felt about the proposal not working out like he had hoped. Hodnett replied that it is normal to be disappointed when one believes in something, but the idea is turned down. Hodnett added, though, “this is what makes our Republic is so great. No single individual makes our decisions. It’s put to the vote, and I’m good with this.
Chatham Star-Tribune

stories of national interest

When Florida Power & Light faced a spate of bad publicity and political blowback, a small but ambitious news website called the Capitolist sprang to the public utility’s defense. Taking aim at foes of FPL’s proposed rate hikes and controversial attempts to buy Jacksonville’s public utility, the Capitolist savaged the critics, impugning their motives and suggesting they were part of “dark money” schemes. “Documents suggest Florida’s largest companies are secretly sabotaging effort to protect power lines from hurricane damage,” declared the headline of one such article from 2019. Unbeknownst to readers, the article — which promoted legislation to reimburse the multibillion-dollar utility for undergrounding power lines — wasn’t published simply because the Capitolist was staunchly conservative and pro-business as editor Brian Burgess had proudly announced when he founded the publication in 2016. The article was written after the FPL president and CEO Eric Silagy made clear he wanted it. And, as it happened, Silagy was secretly running things at the Capitolist. While portraying itself as a feisty independent outlet, the Capitolist — which aims its content directly at Tallahassee decision makers — was bankrolled and controlled by executives of the power company through a small group of trusted intermediaries from an Alabama consulting firm, according to an investigation by the Miami Herald, based on a massive leak of documents.