Transparency News, 8/3/21


August 3, 2021
There was no daily newsletter yesterday, Aug. 2.

state & local news stories

In January 2020, a Prince George’s County (Maryland) police officer shot William Green seven times as he sat handcuffed in the front seat of a police cruiser in Temple Hills, Md. The next day, prosecutors charged Officer Michael A. Owen Jr. with murder. The police chief held a news conference about the killing. The county eventually announced that it would pay Green’s family $20 million in a settlement. Despite the publicity, police have declined to disclose even a single document in response to a Washington Post request for records, under the Maryland Public Information Act, about the fatal shooting. “This is still an active case and is not in the interest of the public to release,” police wrote, citing the state law’s exemption for police “investigative files.” The department referred The Post to a six-paragraph blog post about the fatal shooting. In Virginia, the state Freedom of Information Act gives police departments the discretion to release records contained in criminal investigative files. Practices vary widely, said Alan Gernhardt, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. Some departments, he said, withhold these records in all cases because they worry that if they release anything, they set a precedent for disclosure. Other police departments release as many records as possible because they recognize the positive effect on “public perception, public trust and community policing,” he said.
“Virginia FOIA . . . favors disclosure,” Gernhardt said, so he said he tells people, “When in doubt, give it out.”
The Washington Post

The Bedford County School Board will hold an emergency special-called closed meeting Tuesday to discuss COVID-19 mitigation measures and its nondiscrimination policies with legal counsel.
The News & Advance

Members of the Washington County School Board decided Monday night to leave former member Terry Fleenor’s seat vacant – for now. Fleenor resigned effective July 31 following a contentious school board meeting July 19, when dozens of people spoke on possible policy changes meant to be more inclusive toward transgender students. The board decided to make no changes. School Board Chairman Tom Musick advised the board that legal counsel suggested leaving the seat open would make sense because a new member will be elected in November.
Bristol Herald Courier
stories from around the country
Iowa’s open-records law is not “a well-recognized public policy” and thus does not give job protections to employees who fulfill public information requests, the state attorney general’s office contends. State lawyers representing Gov. Kim Reynolds and her spokesman, Pat Garrett, make that assertion in asking a judge to dismiss a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Polly Carver Kimm, the Iowa Department of Public Health’s former longtime communications director. Carver Kimm argues that Reynolds and Garrett pressured her bosses to strip her duties after the coronavirus pandemic began last year and ultimately forced her to resign because of her willingness to release records and data sought by journalists and the public. Carver Kimm contends that her ouster a year ago was a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The governor’s chief of staff, Sara Craig, said in a statement Friday the lawsuit is “without merit.” In a brief filed this month, lawyers in the office of Attorney General Tom Miller argued that the law “does not establish a clear public policy that was jeopardized by Carver-Kimm’s termination.” Carver Kimm was an at-will employee who can sue for wrongful termination only if her firing would undermine a policy protecting her activities.
Iowa Public Radio

editorials & opinion
As meetings move from the Zoom square to the town square, some public officials were no doubt longing for a the mute-all button. Several school boards around the state have encountered unruly in-person public comment periods. From Augusta, James City, Loudoun and Washington counties, Virginia Beach, Suffolk and others, citizens have refused to yield after their speaking time was up and heckled from the audience, while public officials have cut microphones, called recesses and escorted some speakers out of the building. The topics prompting the angry exchanges usually related to critical race theory, masks in school and transgender rights.

But beyond these lightning-rod issues, there's also a concerted effort by many officials, at the local and state level, to cut the number of meetings a public body must hold in person. The FOIA Council continues to receive chain letters and other pleas to relax the rules in an unspecified way. And the budget bill currently being considered at the General Assembly special session includes this language.
That notwithstanding any other provision of law, any permanent or interim legislative study or advisory commission, committee, or subcommittee, other than a standing committee of the General Assembly to which bills and resolutions are referred during a legislative session pursuant to Article IV, Section 11 of the Constitution of Virginia, or any executive advisory board or council may conduct a meeting by electronic communications means without a quorum of the public body physically assembled at one location if the meeting is being held solely to receive presentations, updates, public comment, or conduct other forms of information gathering. If a quorum is not physically assembled, the commission, committee, subcommittee, board, or council shall not take any votes or make any formal recommendations at such meeting.

The proposal would allow commissions to hold a public comment session without actually being in the same room with the public. In fact, there's no explanation for exactly where the public would give its testimony if a quorum of public body members isn't in one place. The proposal assumes that every person -- when given the options between giving testimony electronically or in person -- would choose the electronic option. There's simply nothing to back that up. It underestimates the public's desire not just to speak but to feel like they are engaging with their representatives. They want to know if board members are nodding in agreement, frowning in disgust, or maybe even sleeping. Given the set-up of most state agency electronic public meetings, the public does not see the body as a whole, only the individual speakers, which obscures any and all of that nonverbal feedback.

Democracy is hard. Democracy is messy. Rules for meeting in public, in front of the public are part and parcel of the democratic process. The rules do not exist for the convenience of any member of a public body. Not a Senator or Delegate, not a state commissioner, school board member, county supervisor or town beautification advisory member.