Transparency News 7/8/19



July 8, 2019


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state & local news stories


Documents obtained via FOIA from the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office show that School Resource Officers (“SRO”) have engaged in business discussions via text messages. Further FOIA inquiries for text messages have come back stating, in part, “we are unable to locate any records within the parameters you listed in your request…” while phone records show that records were in fact sent on the days within the requested parameters
The Virginia Citizen

The future of redevelopment at the Afton Inn remains in the air after the Town Council entered a closed session during a work session earlier this week to continue discussions regarding the derelict building. A motion to enter the closed session states discussions should be limited to “compliance with the terms of the Town Hall/Afton Inn Land Exchange Agreement and restrictive covenants” and “legal obligations and remedies regarding the alleged Afton Inn contract default” by the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority. As described in the authority’s $17.6 million lawsuit against nine defendants, the Afton Inn project is one of the many alleged avenues that Jennifer McDonald, former EDA director, used to embezzle credit lines reserved for town and county projects.
The Northern Virginia Daily


stories of national interest

It is a rare predicament for an American government official, and the allegations will do little to allay investigative reporters’ worst suspicions about the spirit with which bureaucrats receive their nagging, but legal, records requests. One of the charges against Jenna Garland, press secretary to the former mayor of Atlanta, accuses her of attempting to frustrate a reporter’s 2017 request for billing documents from the city water department by telling a subordinate, in text messages, to “drag this out as long as possible” and “provide information in the most confusing format available.” The two charges she faces are misdemeanors, carrying at most a total fine of $3,500. But they are milestones, representing the first time in Georgia history that any public official has been criminally charged under the state’s open records law. Nationwide, experts say, criminal actions against public officials for open records violations are extremely uncommon.
The New York Times

Audrey Sikes, city clerk of Lake City, Fla., has a thing for documents: She does not like losing them. It falls to Ms. Sikes, as official custodian of records for this city of 12,000 people about an hour west of Jacksonville, to maintain Lake City’s archives. She keeps a log of public record requests and has spreadsheets that track things like property deeds and building permits. She spent years digitizing all the papers of a city that incorporated before the Civil War. “It’s everything I do,” Ms. Sikes said. Did. More than 100 years’ worth of municipal records, from ordinances to meeting minutes to resolutions and City Council agendas, have been locked in cyberspace for nearly a month, hijacked by unidentified hackers who encrypted the city’s computer systems and demanded more than $460,000 in ransom. Weeks after the city’s insurer paid the ransom, the phones are back on and email is once again working, but the city has still not recovered all of its files. There is a possibility that thousands of pages of documents that had been painstakingly digitized by Ms. Sikes and her team will have to be manually scanned, again.
The New York Times

Senators from both parties are unhappy with new Trump administration rules giving political appointees at two government agencies more power to review public information requests, and they say they may craft legislation to fix it.  The new rules for considering Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests at the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency have provoked complaints from the media and outside groups, and the senators say they go in the opposite direction in terms of providing access to government records. “In a self-governed society, the people ought to know what their government is up to,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has led the charge on this issue and is considering legislation. 
The Hill

The Maryland Department of Labor said Friday that it was contacting 78,000 customers who had their personal information stored on systems suspected of being breached. An investigation conducted by the state’s IT office found that two separate systems maintained by the labor department — the Literacy Works Information System, or LWIS, and a legacy unemployment insurance service database — “were subject to possible unauthorized access through the Internet,” the agency announced in news release. Full names, Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information were among data stored on each of the systems, according to the agency. The investigation found no evidence of data being stolen the department’s servers, but the state is still offering two years of free credit monitoring to individuals affected.
The Washington Times

Local governments generally want their employees to live within city limits. Some require it. But the ones that don’t -- like Little Rock -- are becoming more proactive to achieve the same goal. “Instead of making employees live within the city, why don’t we make them want to live within the city?” says Stacey Witherell, Little Rock’s human resources director. “Why don’t we try a carrot rather than a stick approach?” The carrot in this case is a one-time payment of $5,000 to help municipal workers purchase a home in the city, or $2,500 to help them rent there.




editorials & columns


When thinking of our leaders, our first thoughts are of those in Washington and Richmond. But when local boards choose by indifference, to deny their obligation to the people, it would be dishonoring not to call them out. The Augusta County Courthouse has been a contentious issue for a number of years. The rejection of a $45 million courthouse in Verona came directly from the people in 2016. The rejection of a similarly costed enlargement and renovation of the existing 1901 structure came from the City of Staunton in 2017. This then has been the work of the Board seated in January 2018 leading up to an architectural service contract in September:
1/22/2018 Closed Session for consultation with legal counsel
4/28/2018 Closed Session for consultation with legal counsel
5/21/2018 Closed Session for discussion of the acquisition or disposition of real property
5/23/2018 A Public Meeting Agenda Item bringing forward the recommendation of the Courthouse Committee.
9/12/2018 Closed Session 2.2-3711 (A) (30) (a wrongly cited section)
9/12/2018 Following the Closed Session, the Board moved to award the architectural services.
Tracy Pyles, The News Virginian