Transparency News 8/30/19



August 30, 2019


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state & local news stories


"The about-face came after some lawmakers and advocates criticized the board’s plan for collecting comment earlier this week on social media and in interviews."

Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors took stock of a public comment plan involving tuition it approved earlier this week — and it decided to quickly make some changes. Originally, Tech’s guidelines for public comment called for people to sign up seven days in advance of commenting and limited the comment period to 30 minutes. Now, the period was extended to an hour and people who show up can comment without signing up a week in advance. The about-face came after some lawmakers and advocates criticized the board’s plan for collecting comment earlier this week on social media and in interviews. A university spokesman said the guidelines for comment were changed by school administrators following input from board members.
The Roanoke Times

Finding more of its time consumed by Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the city of Charlottesville has been floating a policy that would charge public records requests in 15-minute increments once an employee has spent 15 minutes assembling materials. Given its tiny size, Rappahannock County doesn’t have near the volume of FOIA requests, which in many cases requires a government to produce everything from paper records and electronic files to audio and video recordings. Rappahannock’s FOIA policy, which is found on the county government’s website, already warns FOIA requesters: “Do you want a cost estimate before we reply?” “Normally we are liberal with the amount of staff time committed before we charge, but we can if something very onerous comes along,” county Administrator Garrey W. Curry tells the Rappahannock News.
Rappahannock News

Virginia State Police are investigating Fairfax County Board of Supervisors member Jeff McKay. This comes three months after a political opponent filed an ethics complaint alleging McKay swapped a political favor for a real-estate deal. In a statement, Supervisor McKay tells WAMU, “I am aware that one of my opponents filed a baseless, politically motivated complaint. I haven’t yet had an opportunity to speak with anyone about it. I look forward to finally having that opportunity to clear my name and move beyond these false claims.” Spokespeople for Attorney General Herring and Virginia State Police declined comment. Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh — whose office would likely prosecute McKay if charges are warranted — did not return multiple requests for comment. The Attorney General of Virginia’s office denied WAMU’s Freedom of Information Act request for records pertaining to the investigation on Wednesday, citing a provision in Virginia code that allows criminal investigative materials to be restricted from release.


stories of national interest

Wisconsin lawmakers who passed a law taking away Attorney General Josh Kaul's power to settle lawsuits without their permission are refusing to give Kaul assurances of confidentiality he says are needed to resolve litigation without jeopardizing taxpayers.  The move was made as part of an unprecedented closed-door meeting of the Legislature's finance committee that was convened at Kaul's request to discuss action on a multi-state lawsuit — one that lawmakers would debate without even knowing its nature.  The result was a bizarre display between Democrats and Republicans on the committee arguing in front of reporters who didn't know why the lawmakers were meeting. The lawmakers didn't know either. Democrats decried the episode as an example of an ill-crafted law that forces Kaul to choose between violating attorneys' confidentiality rules or violating a state law requiring him to bring lawsuits to a committee that is subject to open government laws. Republicans defended the law, saying without it the public would continue to be shut out of the process to settle lawsuits involving taxpayer money — something previous attorneys general had the power to handle privately. 
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It looked like a conventional public meeting. Early in the evening on the last night of July, a city employee in Denver, stood before half a dozen people in a community center at the edge of Cheesman Park, a lush 81-acre green space in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where joggers were making their rounds. The room was small, stuffy and sparsely furnished, with round tables pushed together under white fluorescent lights. Trays of cheeses, cookies, fruits and pita wraps languished in the corner, preoccupying a single, unrelenting fly. Yet this wasn't a typical community forum, and Rowena Alegría wasn't a typical city employee. "I am the chief storyteller for the city and county of Denver," she told the group, and she had come for one of her regular "storytelling labs." They're a chance for residents to record personal stories about their ever-changing city, using text, audio and video to help local government preserve community history. The office opened to skepticism in the local press. Denver's alt-weekly Westword called into question how the chief storyteller "just happens to be a former Hancock aide," raising concerns that she was running "a taxpayer-funded office designed to polish PR for Denver." But Alegría, who was a longtime editor at The Denver Post before joining Hancock's team in 2012, is quick to say her storytelling is "community engagement, not PR." 

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University said on Thursday it asked Democratic U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to unblock any Twitter users she has barred on the basis of their political views. The practice “is unconstitutional, and we are writing in the hope of dissuading you from engaging in it,” the institute wrote to Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term congresswoman from New York who has gained a national spotlight for her championing of progressive views. Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter that “less than 20 accounts are blocked” out of more than 5.2 million followers and “0 are my constituents.” She was sued in July by former Democratic New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind for blocking him from her personal @AOC account. The Knight Institute, which successfully sued President Donald Trump over his decision to block dozens of users on Twitter from his personal @realdonaldtrump account, argued that Ocasio-Cortez’s account “is a ‘public forum’ within the meaning of the First Amendment” guaranteeing free speech and noted that her tweets staking out political positions “have made headline news.” The institute said Ocasio-Cortez was within her rights, however, to block Twitter users who had posted threatening speech.




editorials & columns

quote_3.jpg"It turns out there’s a whole category of American law that is above such checks and balances."

When the Supreme Court and lower courts interpret the Constitution and laws, their decrees are public, accessible and subject to debate. In some instances, if an interpretation of the law doesn’t sit well with the public, Congress can respond by amending the law, effectively nullifying a court’s decision. Or if a ruling on a constitutional question is especially egregious, a constitutional amendment, though unlikely, remains an option. But it turns out there’s a whole category of American law that is above such checks and balances. The public knows nothing about it and there’s no way to challenge it in court, let alone debate it in the halls of Congress. For decades, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has flexed its interpretive power as the ultimate arbiter of what the law is for the executive branch, building a whole body of secret law that remains shielded from public view.
Cristian Farias, Politico