Transparency News 8/26/19



August 26, 2019


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state & local news stories


“I think it sends a message about what we actually want out of public comment, which is that we don’t want it.” 

Two council members have called for him to be fired. So has a group of African American leaders, and now, other members of the public are piling on, wearing buttons at council meetings that demand he be canned. Their source of frustration? Virginia Beach City Manager Dave Hansen. While the sentiment is not new, calls for his resignation have intensified since the May 31 mass shooting, with at least three families of the 12 killed saying they want him gone. The relatives of Josh Hardy, Kate Nixon and Missy Langer have said they are unhappy with Hansen’s leadership style and how he has treated them in the aftermath of the May 31 shooting carried out by a pubic utilities engineer. They feel ignored and are upset that Hansen has not provided any significant updates about the investigation and won’t release the gunman’s personnel file.
The Virginian-Pilot

More than two years ago, the Portsmouth City Council forced out most members of the city’s housing authority board amid a federal investigation. Relations between the two bodies don’t seem to have improved much since. In their latest spat with City Council members, housing authority commissioners quarreled this week over whether to let Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke back into all of their closed-door meetings. The council appoints housing authority commissioners, and one council member at a time has long been a liaison to the authority board, reporting back to the rest of the council on how the board is overseeing an agency that provides housing for thousands of low-income residents. Lucas-Burke said she and previous council liaisons were allowed into commissioners’ closed meetings for years. That changed sometime after Lucas-Burke spoke to The Virginian-Pilot in 2017 about a fired housing authority employee who was later charged with embezzling. Lucas-Burke didn’t violate any laws when she spoke to The Pilot about former PRHA employee Kimberly Ward, who was indicted in 2017 on four counts of embezzlement a month after The Pilot reported that a theft case against her had stalled.
The Virginian-Pilot

Martinsville City Councilman and former mayor Danny Turner, who has questioned the legitimacy of the contract under which Eric Monday has served as city attorney for more than a decade, now is asking whether there’s a conflict of interest created by Monday’s hiring as assistant city manager. City Manager Leon Towarnicki on July 1 named Monday as his assistant, and Monday wrote then in an email then that he would continue to serve as attorney for the city and Martinsville City Public Schools and accept any assignments from the city manager. Most council members say they have no issue with the hiring and think the city job of assistant city manager is up to Towarnicki. Some say they thought any conflict of interest would have been reviewed before this was OK’d, even though that question apparently never was asked in a public meeting. Monday did say in an email this week that he and Towarnicki and Mayor Kathy Lawson have signed a disclosure that says “any potential conflict which may arise in the future will always be resolved in favor of City Council.” When asked if the disclosure was something that should have been voted on by City Council, Lawson said this is “an acknowledgment, a statement, not something that has to be taken action on [by Council].”
Martinsville Bulletin

The First Amendment case against Berryville Mayor Patricia Dickinson, who deleted criticism and briefly banned a man from her Facebook page, was dismissed in Clarke County General District Court on Thursday. Judge Amy B. Tisinger told complainant Brian McClemens that general district courts are the wrong jurisdictions for First Amendment cases. “We are a court of limited jurisdiction,” Tisinger said, adding that McClemens could appeal her ruling. The dispute began on June 5 after Dickinson suggested on her Facebook page that people visit the grand opening of a McDonald’s restaurant that opened in Berryville the next day. McDonald’s is one of just two chain restaurants in the town. McClemens — whose wife, Heidi Grubb-McClemens, owns the Berryville Grille — posted on Dickinson’s page that the mayor was “seriously delirious.” He wrote that she was showing favoritism to a corporate business at the expense of locally owned restaurants. Dickinson hid the two posts and banned McClemens saying he was using her page to “disparage a competitor.” After someone posted a link to a federal appeals court ruling from January that stated that public officials who use social media for government business can’t block people from commenting, Dickinson unblocked McClemens and his comments on June 6.
The Winchester Star

Signups for public comment at Albemarle County School Board meetings could look a little different in the future. On Thursday, the board heard a proposal for a new policy that would make sign-ups online only, but members ultimately requested a policy that would allow people to sign up online and in person. The changed policy will be brought before the board for approval again at a later meeting before a pilot of the additional online signups begins. School Board Clerk Jennifer Johnston said the proposed changes were meant to help create more efficient meetings, adding that if there were many people signing up ahead of time, the chair could make adjustments to the agenda if necessary. Board member Katrina Callsen said right away that she had several issues with the proposed changes. “I don’t get why it’s necessary,” she said “I think it sends a message about what we actually want out of public comment, which is that we don’t want it.”
The Daily Progress

Augusta County has filled the newly created position of communications manager, hiring Mia Kivlighan of Staunton. Kivlighan comes to the county from Eastern Mennonite University, where she served as the marketing and public relations manager at the Harrisonburg school. As communications manager, she will assist the County Administrator’s Office with public information, media and community relations needs, according to the county. Administrator Timothy Fitzgerald said the need for timely communication, particularly in the realm of social media, had grown to the point where Augusta County could no longer get by without someone whose sole job was that. The hope, he said, is to “really engage our citizens better.”
The News Virginian

Three members of Strasburg Town Council have requested that a special meeting be called for 7 p.m. Monday. The only item listed on the agenda, following a call to order by Mayor Richard A. “Rich” Orndorff Jr., is a closed session. The subject of the closed meeting, as described in the agenda, “is to discuss the conduct of the Mayor during a recent event.” If any action is decided in the closed meeting, the council will take that action during an open meeting immediately following the closed meeting. Councilwoman Taralyn Nicholson is leading the special meeting request, along with council members John Massoud and Kim Bishop. The goal, said Nicholson, is to “put forth some sort of unified statement. That’s how I’m hoping that this will go.” The closed meeting will be held in accordance to Virginia code, Section 2.2-3711(A)(1), with wording that includes “performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining, or resignation of specific public officers, appointees, or employees of any public body,” and Section 2.2-3711(A) (4) “for protection of the privacy of individuals in personal matters not related to public business.” “There are things we need to discuss away from the public eye,” said Massoud. “To the best of my knowledge, there’s no new information.”
The Northern Virginia Daily


stories of national interest

More than 40 municipalities have been the victims of cyberattacks this year, from major cities such as Baltimore, Albany and Laredo, Tex., to smaller towns including Lake City, Fla. Lake City is one of the few cities to have paid a ransom demand — about $460,000 in Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency — because it thought reconstructing its systems would be even more costly. In most ransomware cases, the identities and whereabouts of culprits are cloaked by clever digital diversions. Intelligence officials, using data collected by the National Security Agency and others in an effort to identify the sources of the hacking, say many have come from Eastern Europe, Iran and, in some cases, the United States. The majority have targeted small-town America, figuring that sleepy, cash-strapped local governments are the least likely to have updated their cyberdefenses or backed up their data. Mike Slye, Kaufman’s (Texas) city manager, said he was not permitted to discuss details of the attack, including how it was discovered. Such a response is typical in the aftermath of small-town cyberattacks. Some local leaders are embarrassed, while others fear that by discussing the attack, they will invite future ones or will expose a weakness in their cyberdefenses.
The New York Times




editorials & columns


One of the greatest freedoms that Americans enjoy was born in Virginia 243 years ago but still is not fully shared with the state’s high school and college students. Virginia students who report in high school and college newspapers do not enjoy the same freedom from censorship as most Americans. School officials who dislike unflattering, embarrassing or sensitive investigative stories proposed for publication in the student press too often spike stories or punish faculty sponsors of high school papers. That is why Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, is reviving a bill he first sponsored in January promoting freedom of speech and of the press for students in Virginia’s public schools and colleges. Opponents, including some school administrators, have cited worries that students would be free to practice reckless reporting, but the bill’s sponsor insisted that journalistic “industry standard editorial oversight could be codified to protect schools from reckless speech.” ‘
Bob Gibson, The Roanoke Times

AFTER hearing the shocking news that Spotsylvania County Public Schools unwittingly paid a still-unidentified person or persons $600,000 based on a phony invoice, county supervisors and taxpayers were left wondering how such a thing could happen. Who sent the fake invoice for a partial payment of the $1.2 million owed for synthetic blue turf that was recently installed at Courtland High School’s football field? How did the criminals manage to create a fake invoice that was apparently indistinguishable from a real one? Did they have any inside help? And why didn’t any school officials—up to and including Superintendent Scott Baker, who signed off on the $600,000 wire transfer—recognize the scam before they sent the money? Hiring an internal auditor would not, and indeed could not, guarantee the county and its schools won’t ever be the target of a financial crime in the future. But it would reassure taxpayers that Spotsylvania is doing everything in its power to thwart cybercriminals and that procedures are in place to make sure county funds earmarked for education are spent for the purpose intended and that every dollar is accounted for.
The Free Lance-Star