Transparency News 7/29/13


Monday, July 29, 2013
State and Local Stories


“To the extent that other county offices are in possession of public records, such county offices may be required to produce information contained in these records pursuant to the Virginia Freedom of lnformation Act”
Office of the Attorney General

Policies are not always followed at the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, records show.The four highest-ranking officials at the agency — including the current chief operating officer and three former commissioners — used state vehicles to commute to and from work, although an executive order prohibited the practice except in cases where officials might be expected to respond to “job-related emergencies.” Policy prohibits workers from tapping for personal use the expansive criminal database utilized by the agency, but an ABC special investigator duped a colleague into doing just that, lied about it and kept her job.
Daily Progress

According to James City County Administrator Robert Middaugh's current contract, he would be paid $130,805.75 if the Board of Supervisors fires him. In a request to the board last week, Middaugh asked for a new severance agreement that includes his full annual salary of $174,405 in the event of a forced departure. Middaugh's request for increased severance raises questions about the practice of severance packages for local government leaders, which often include a hefty payout from a locality's tax-funded coffers. Severance provisions are common among the various managers and administrators in the greater Peninsula area, as well as across the country. In Virginia, city managers and county administrators are "at-will" employees, meaning they serve as contract employees hired by local governing bodies. Middaugh said "all too frequently" an administrator could be terminated if the "political winds change" and the supervisors don't like his performance.
Daily Press

Richmond is owed nearly $90,000 in fines from local political candidates who filed campaign finance reports late or not at all, and the city’s electoral board is working with the commonwealth’s attorney to collect the money. As of Friday morning, a long-ago City Council candidate, two former members of the School Board and two School Board hopefuls topped the list of delinquent candidates.

Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell bought nearly $9,800 in clothing with money from her husband’s political action committee and tapped into his campaign and inaugural funds to buy $7,600 in mostly unspecified items, according to records and a representative for the PAC. The spending is legal under Virginia’s lax campaign finance laws, which prohibit the conversion of political funds for private use only when a PAC or campaign committee disbands — not while it is operating.

The Fredericksburg Police Department and the Stafford and Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Offices use patrol cars equipped to scan license plates, whether a vehicle is connected to a crime or not. But they say they do not keep data for future use.
Free Lance-Star
State police, the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office and the Lynchburg Police Department use license plate readers, while sheriff’s offices in Amherst and Appomattox counties do not. Officials with the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to calls requesting comment. Lynchburg police have two units fixed to patrol vehicles, Zuidema said. Each unit has four cameras facing different directions, constantly scan and photograph plates and checking the numbers against law enforcement databases, he explained. The machine records when and where each plate was read.
News & Advance

Robert Haley of Bassett recently made a sizable donation to the Bassett Historical Center — sizable in the amount of shelf space it occupies, that is. Haley donated the entire 130-volume “War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies” to the center, making it one of the few libraries or historic societies to possess an entire copy of what the National Archives refers to as the “official records” of the Civil War.
Martinsville Bulletin

Virginia’s attorney general is expanding a technology lab that analyzes and processes evidence of child pornography and other computer crimes.
News Leader

Perhaps as early as next month, local television viewers will get to see something they’ve never seen before: video of a trial in a Fairfax County courtroom. On Friday, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush granted a motion by the local news media (Channels 4, 5, 7 and 9 and The Post) to place a video and a still camera in the back of the room for the murder trial of Julio Blanco Garcia, accused of killing local college student Vanessa Pham in the summer of 2010. This is a great step forward for the Virginia judiciary and should serve to educate many people, both here and possibly nationally, about how our justice system works.
Washington Post



Daily Press: Open meetings laws provide an important check on our representative form of government: although citizens delegate the people's business to elected officials, they have the right to expect that the people's business will be conducted in public. Otherwise, that delegated power can go too far. Despite these important principles, public bodies sometimes seem to forget the rules. Just last week, a member of the James City County Board of Supervisors revealed that the group "participated in a violation of public trust" because they discussed backyard chicken-keeping in a closed session dedicated to County Administrator Robert Middaugh's performance evaluation. It's easy to understand how these things happen. It's human nature for conversations to stray off topic every now and then. But public officials must be vigilant about self-monitoring their conduct.

Daily Progress: It’s not just the decisions that concern the public, it’s the discussions. The Hanover County Board of Supervisors plans to ask the General Assembly to make it easier for small groups of officials to meet without public notice. But that would make it harder for the public to track what’s going on in government. Particularly, it would make it more difficult for constituents to hear the discussions and debates that are necessary before good decisions can be made.

News & Advance: “It takes four full conversations for him to get the information out to the board members,” Hanover Board of Supervisors Chair Canova Peterson IV told a reporter. “What we’re trying to look at here is how can we meet the intent of the Freedom of Information Act and still have efficient and effective government.” The supervisors, Peterson says, would love to have “brainstorming” sessions that would “enhance the formation of new ideas and analysis of difficult issues.” In other words, talk about hot-button issues of high interest to the public, but out of eyesight and earshot of the very public they’ answer to. But, darn it, that pesky state FOIA law just won’t let them do their jobs more efficiently.

Roanoke TimesThe people of Hanover County must be a real bunch of buttinskies. They have the audacity to think they should be informed about matters they would be better off leaving to the wisdom of their elected representatives on the board of supervisors. Matters like, say, a proposed rendering plant next to a suburban neighborhood. Or an increase in the real estate tax rate. Or a raise supervisors wish to award themselves. Hanover residents seem to think that the Freedom of Information Act is all about them, that the law was intended to make sure they are served by an open and transparent government. Hanover supervisors say the law is really intended for their convenience, and it needs to be rewritten to avoid having a lot of nosey people show up at board meetings.

Times-Dispatch: Passing one or two measures narrowly tailored to address the particulars of the McDonnell story may prevent a similar episode from occurring. But it would not prevent other sorts of episodes from occurring – any more than reforming the disclosure of inaugural-ball funds in the wake of the Wilder episode prevented the current story from unfolding. Piecemeal reform will not suffice. In order to forestall an endless variety of future scandals, and an endless reactionary tinkering with the law to address them, Virginia should undertake a comprehensive overhaul of its ethics-in-government laws and regulations. Its aims should include reducing the potential for conflicts of interest and improving disclosure of both the culture of giving to politicians, and the behavior of political actors. To those ends, the overhaul should examine: (1) the need for a state ethics commission; (2) the need for limits on campaign contributions; (3) bans on certain types of gifts to certain individuals; (4) tighter reporting requirements; (5) reducing structural incentives to curry political favor – i.e., political control over the allocation of economic resources; (6) expansion of the state’s Freedom of Information law; (7) changes in the appointment process for judges; and (8) better reporting of votes in the General Assembly and in local government bodies.

Roger Chesley, Virginian-Pilot: If my home phone rings in the pre-dawn hours, rousing me from slumber, I immediately assume that a close friend or relative has died suddenly. My breathing quickens. I wouldn't expect an automated call from police alerting me about a missing child. And - after my heart rate finally settled down - I'd be miffed. The decision to wake up so many people in the middle of the night was overkill. Given the hundreds of reported runaways every year in Virginia Beach - including 1,426 in 2012 - will such late-night calls occur more frequently?