Transparency News 8/6/18



August 6, 2018


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state & local news stories


"Any personnel matter is something the School Board is not going to be able to talk about based on our county policy and state law."

The principal at a Hanover County high school has been removed a month before the new school year begins, and some residents are criticizing what they see as a lack of transparency in her ouster. Beth Smith is no longer the principal at Patrick Henry High School, according to an announcement sent Thursday evening by Hanover’s school district. The announcement, which gives no details about the reason for the decision, was signed by School Board Chairman Robert L. Hundley and Superintendent Michael Gill. “This is a personnel matter that came from the superintendent. We really can’t talk about anything other than what was in our announcement,” School Board Chairman Robert L. Hundley said. “Any personnel matter is something the School Board is not going to be able to talk about based on our county policy and state law. Everything we have done to this point is in the best interest of Patrick Henry High School.” State public records law allows local officials to decide whether to release information that could be deemed a personnel record. “Generally speaking the personnel exemption is discretionary. They can release records or have discussions publicly if they choose,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

A coalition of community activists is renewing calls for more transparency from Richmond police after the department said it could not provide data on “stop-and-frisk” encounters and traffic stops. The activists’ evidence is purely anecdotal, based on stories and complaints they’ve collected from residents at community meetings and door knocking in areas of the city with large minority populations. So they requested data through the Freedom of Information Act from the police to confirm what they’d been hearing from community members. In its response to the groups, the Richmond Police Department said it doesn’t “have a way to extract the data” and that it would require someone to review every encounter or traffic stop to retrieve the data. The department cited an exemption in the state FOIA law that does not require it to make a new report. A police spokesman said the department plans to try to provide the information in the future.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The federal government has a plan for shutting down the entire Metro system that includes putting its own transit staff in the agency’s rail operations center and bringing in the Federal Railroad Administration for help should regulators deem there are significant safety risks that warrant such action. Federal safety officials would first have to determine a “substantial risk” exists, such as a serious defect in the steel rails used throughout the system or a batch of faulty track circuits, or a dangerous mechanical problem affecting an entire series of rail cars. The internal planning document, prepared by the Federal Transit Administration, has existed since December 2016, but it was never made public or shared with officials outside the Transportation Department — even in Metro. “We only became aware of its existence after The Washington Post began asking about it,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. The document, obtained by The Post through a Freedom of Information Act request, is a 22-page delineation of the transportation secretary’s authority over the Washington region’s subway, the only transit system in the country whose chronic safety problems have warranted a step-by-step plan to address the possibility of a federally mandated shutdown.
The Washington Post


stories of national interest

Last fall, a reporter for the South Bend Tribune asked to see the court files for three criminal cases in Elkhart County, Indiana. For reporters, such requests are routine. Unless a court file is sealed — and none of these were — court files are about as easy to access as any public records in any branch of government. Reviewing those files allows the public to assess the performance of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, and to gauge the fairness of a case’s outcome. But in Elkhart County, these requests for court files proved to be anything but routine. A judge issued orders that barred access to all police reports that were in the three court files; to all exhibits that were shown to jurors during the trials; and to all briefs filed on appeal. And that’s only a partial list of the records she denied, some in violation of Indiana’s open records law, according to the state’s appointed watchdog on access issues. The judge, for instance, maintained that the appellate briefs were attorney-work product, and therefore privileged and private. These were not drafts, however; they were completed briefs submitted to the court and placed in the file.

A fast-acting class of fentanyl drugs approved only for cancer patients with high opioid tolerance has been prescribed frequently to patients with back pain and migraines, putting them at high risk of accidental overdose and death, according to documents collected by the Food and Drug Administration. About 5,000 pages of documents, obtained by researchers at Johns Hopkins University through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to The New York Times, show that the F.D.A. had data showing that so-called off-label prescribing was widespread. But officials did little to intervene.
The New York Times

The Interior Department is planning to post Secretary Ryan Zinke’s calendars regularly on the department’s website. The first weekly calendar was published Friday afternoon, with a summary of what Zinke did July 28 through Aug. 3, which was the past week. The department plans to make similar posts each week when possible. Interior already makes proactive disclosures about certain information, including releasing travel records for Zinke every few months. But some environmental groups have accused Zinke of running an overly opaque department.
The Hill



The judge maintained that the appellate briefs were attorney-work product, and therefore privileged and private.


editorials & columns


"More access to court cases and outcomes will only shine more light on issues such as these."

The scales of justice are supposed to be balanced; that guarantee was enshrined in the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Yet, in Virginia, the Daily Press has uncovered instances where the state’s judiciary places a heavier hand to black defendants than their white counterparts. Our reporters found that to be true in 2015 when data revealed that pleading guilty to a crime can lead to vastly different sentences based on the perpetrators' race. Why is no one else talking about this? For starters, it is embarrassing to learn that equal protection under the law does not apply to all Virginians. Secondly, this data has not become readily available. The courts do not want the public to see these figures without going through great efforts to collect the data. More access to court cases and outcomes will only shine more light on issues such as these, therefore allowing the courts the opportunity to improve the system in which they operate.
Daily Press

The process wasn’t elegant, nor was it as smoothly — or openly — conducted as we would wish. But City Council was facing a sense of urgency — a need for speed in getting a manager in place before the Aug. 12 anniversary. That the urgency existed was partly due to council’s own fumblings — its inability to come to unanimous agreement on a previous candidate. What wasn’t smooth was the process leading up to his selection. Even the City Council meeting at which he was officially hired featured some anomalies. The final vote on such a decision must be made in an open meeting — but City Council gave only 10 minutes’ warning that the meeting was to occur. It’s legal, but Megan Rhyne, an expert on Virginia law and the First Amendment, said that 10 minutes is “the least amount of notice I’ve ever heard of.”
The Daily Progress