Transparency News 8/26/14

Tuesday, August 26, 2014  

State and Local Stories

Yesterday the FOIA Council’s subcommittee on records exemptions reviewed more than a dozen exemptions in the catch-all category that apply to specific agencies. For a recap of the meeting, check out this chronology of our tweets.

Concerned Danville residents can speak out again about the search for a new superintendent in two additional public input sessions Wednesday.  The first session was held last Thursday. Board member Steven Gould said it helped him get a sense of what the community wanted in a school leader. “I think it is always helpful to hear directly from the public what it is they are most interested in seeing,” Gould said.
Register & Bee

An attorney for Richmond Chief Administrative Officer Byron C. Marshall has accused City Auditor/Inspector General Umesh Dalal of damaging the credibility of the auditor’s office by issuing a “grossly inaccurate” report on the controversial departure of former finance official Sharon Judkins. In a letter to Dalal dated Monday, former Virginia Attorney General Anthony F. Troy said Dalal had enough information to know that the steps Marshall took to boost the pension for ex-deputy administrator Sharon Judkins would not have cost the city roughly $400,000 as Dalal reported, because Marshall was already fixing the problem. “You had absolutely no basis for that assertion and had to know that it was not just mistaken, but indeed you had to know that it was false,” Troy, a defense attorney with Eckert Seamans, wrote in the three-page letter.

Want a real-life example of voter fraud? Fairfax County election officials say they have 17— and they’re providing names to local, state and federal authorities for prosecution. The 17 voters reportedly cast ballots in both Fairfax County, Va., and the state of Maryland during the 2012 presidential election. Officials from Fairfax and Montgomery County, Md., identified dual voters by matching first and last names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers. Brian Schoenemann, secretary of the Fairfax County Electoral Board, said he sent letters and evidence to county Commonwealth Attorney Ray Morrogh, state Attorney General Mark Herring, U.S. Attorney Dana Boente and the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice requesting further investigation. Names of the voters were not disclosed. But learned that one of the multiple voters had been casting double ballots for the past decade. Virginia Bureau

On Tuesday, nine Mecklenburg County residents filed a petition with the Mecklenburg County Circuit Court to “review action by the Mecklenburg County School Board” concerning the recent extension of Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton’s contract. Thornton’s contract was extended from June of 2016 until June of 2018 by a 6-2 vote of the school board at its July 31 regular meeting. The nine residents, representing each of the school board’s voting districts, collaborated to ask the courts to rescind the new contract and reinstate the previous one. The petition argues any extension of Thornton’s contract should be the province of the new school board to be elected in November of 2015.
South Hill Enterprise

The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy will create a database mapping earthquakes throughout the state. A $411,727 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be used to create the database, which will include information about past earthquakes and the locations of known geologic faults in seismically active parts of Virginia, according to a written statement. The database is meant to be a resource for citizens, local governments and other state agencies, the statement said. The database is expected to be complete in September 2016.
Herald Courier

National Stories

The three Republican and three Democratic appointees of the Federal Election Commission had reached yet another deadlock: They would issue no advisory opinion on whether the Conservative Action Fund could accept contributions of Bitcoin, the online currency created to be untraceable. The case was just one of the more than 200 times in the past six years that the commission has split votes, reflecting a deep ideological divide over how aggressively to regulate money in politics that mirrors the partisan gridlock in Congress.
New York Times

New York City Councilman Ben Kallos wants to make Freedom of Information requests faster and more transparent — but he’s hardly speedy himself at responding to them. Kallos (D-Upper East Side) wants to revamp the city’s open records law by creating an online database for all requests and the data provided. The public portal would put pressure on city agencies to respond faster and would save an estimated $10 million, according to backers of the legislation. But Kallos struggled to respond to a Freedom of Information Law request filed by the Daily News seeking internal documents about the bill. It took him 44 days to hand over 218 pages of documents — missing the deadline on the extension he requested by three days. Many pages were heavily redacted.
New York Daily News

A federal trial judge in Washington will not force the government to reveal the substance of its settlement talks with the House of Representatives over access to information rooted in the Fast and Furious gun sting.

Secular groups are accusing the town of Greece of slamming the door on atheists with a new set of guidelines for invocations at public meetings. The Town Board adopted its first formal policy on the matter last week, roughly 3½ months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the board's practice of opening meetings with a prayer as long as local officials do not discriminate against minority faiths. Until now, the town had no written rules on selecting who can give an invocation. The policy says that now, speakers will represent "assemblies with an established presence in the town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective." Assemblies outside the town can participate too if at least one Greece resident attends them regularly and specifically asks in writing for them to be included. Those rules fly in the face of what the town told the U.S. Supreme Court, which was that people of any persuasion, including lay people and atheists, could give invocations, said Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
USA Today


Reporter Mark Bowes’ excellent front-page story Sunday about the stockpiling of military equipment and arms by Virginia law-enforcement agencies included a number of alarming details. But surely one of the most discomfiting was the truculent and inexcusable refusal by some of them to come clean about what they have. Chesterfield seems to have set the best example for cooperative transparency; that’s been the Editorial Department’s experience, too. By contrast Henrico, Hanover and Richmond exhibited what Bowes calls “strong initial resistance” to providing information asked for under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. They also utterly refused to disclose how many machine guns and sniper rifles they possess. Likewise, the Virginia State Police refused to disclose what sort of rifles and other military gear they have. Rationale? Disclosing its armaments would disclose its “tactical plans,” which are exempt from FOIA. Nonsense.

The Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission stumbled getting out of the blocks. The board met prior to the July 1 date its authorizing legislation took effect. Called an orientation meeting, the group was not yet a public body and therefore not required to provide public notice of its gathering. For an organization controlling billions in public revenue, it was a discouraging start. It gave rise to fears that lawmakers had created yet another ineffective regional body incapable of making the tough decisions or delivering on its promises.
Daily Press

If taxpayer money weren’t involved, this might be just a $2,000 mistake. We’re all prone to errors. Not all of us, though, are entrusted with public funds. Charlottesville police are investigating the use of city money to pay a former electoral board member’s cellphone bill for more than three years after she left office, officials said last week. An initial, internal investigation was launched by City Manager Maurice Jones several months after he was told of the discrepancy. He also asked for the police investigation now underway.
Daily Progress