Transparency News 8/9/17

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

State and Local Stories

The only written risk analysis the Peninsula Airport Commission prepared in using taxpayer money to guarantee a $5 million line of credit for People Express Airlines was done two and half years after the fact, and amounted to only two pages. It came in response to a request from Virginia Department of Transportation auditors who were looking to see how carefully the commission had evaluated that risk, emails the Daily Press obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show.
Daily Press

Those wishing to speak at Chesterfield School Board meetings may soon have to adjust to a new setup. The idea, which was considered by School Board members Tuesday but not voted on, came about after two residents protested from their seats when they nearly lost their chance to speak in April. Instead of being able to comment on each action item, residents would be able to speak during two public comment periods.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute and the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are demanding that the city of Charlottesville give pro-white activist Jason Kessler permission to hold his Unite the Right rally in Emancipation Park as originally planned. In a letter sent Tuesday, the organizations warned that the city’s decision Monday to only approve Kessler’s permit if the event is moved to McIntire Park is a violation of his free speech rights.
Daily Progress

From organic to online, decades of plant life specimens in the Lynchburg College Ramsey-Freer Herbarium have been preserved digitally and uploaded to search portals on scientific websites. The digitization process, which took place over the past year, was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation that provided equipment and funds to log Virginia plant specimens in the Ramsey-Freer Herbarium. Founded in 1927, the herbarium, now located in the Claytor Nature Study Center in Bedford County, holds more than 60,000 specimens.
News & Advance

Months after it first was uncovered as part of a renovation project, the Nelson County Board of Supervisors decided publicly Tuesday to cover temporarily historic lettering with religious connotations inside the Nelson County Circuit Courtroom. The decision to cover the words “Virtus — Keep God’s Commandments — Veritas,” painted onto the horizontal structure above columns that support the balcony located directly across from seats for the judge and jury, with a removable cover came on a 4-1 vote of the supervisors during their monthly meeting Tuesday.
Nelson County Times

National Stories

This session, some members of Congress are looking to limit the secrecy of for-profit prison companies, with a coalition of 50 nonprofit and public interest organizations, including MuckRock, signing on in favor of transparency and accountability at contract facilities. Senate Bill 1728, introduced last week by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), would subject federal for-profit prisons to the same disclosure requirements as publicly-run federal facilities. Right now, privately-run federal prisons are generally exempt from FOIA, particularly compared with public counterparts, and many critics believe that such barriers have contributed to the failures that these facilities have had.

A Delaware judge has ruled against former state treasurer Chip Flowers in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against former Gov. Jack Markell. In Tuesday’s ruling, the judge said Markell’s office did not violate Delaware’s FOIA law by withholding emails from Flowers simply because they were sent or received by a lawmaker or legislative staffer, without regard to their content or context. State lawmakers have specifically exempted their emails from the FOIA law.
Washington Post

Millions of baseball fans attend ballparks across North America annually, buying some peanuts and Cracker Jack—and hot food, too. But what are they getting themselves into? Thousands of public inspection records gathered from local health departments in the United States and Canada reveal that food safety varies widely across Major League Baseball’s venues. Inspectors uncovered many concerning practices, from nearly 250 total violations at Dodger Stadium to a single concession stand at Tropicana Field that racked up 25 violations alone. They also found stadiums, like Safeco Field, in stellar condition. Two public records requests went unfulfilled in Sports Illustrated’s reporting for this project. 
Sports Illustrated

Maine has joined dozens of states in refusing to share personal voter information with President Trump's voter fraud commission. But the state regularly sells the very same data to political parties, candidates and ballot question or issue-based political action committees. In fact, over the last two years, Maine collected more than $30,000 selling voter information -- including name, year of birth, address, party affiliation and whether or not a voter participated in the last two elections. A review of records obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram under a Freedom of Access Act request shows that CVR data was sold or given away 61 times over the two-year period. Only one formal request for voter data was denied by Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who has broad discretion over the release of the data.


We call it the Freedom of Information Act in Virginia, but it’s good to remember that it’s about information that’s in a public record or revealed in a public meeting. One thing that can really help get information, as Cherise Newsome points out in her excellent post, is talking to the FOIA compliance officer about what you’re trying to find out. There’s another bit of research that can be worth doing before you actually make a FOIA request for records. That’s to try to find out what kind of records a public body keeps.
Dave Ress, VCOG’s Truth in the Field blog

Leaking is a crime, and a serious one. Yet, it must be balanced against the public’s right to know what its government is doing, particularly when those actions run afoul of the Constitution. The revelation of warrantless and unconstitutional domestic surveillance, provided by former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden, is a good example of information that represents a demonstrable abuse of federal power. The United States has a whistleblower protection law that shields public employees from retaliation for exposing violations. And the courts have generally sided with members of the media when publishing sensitive information. It has been a priority of President Donald Trump to slow the information coming out of his White House, especially anything regarding the ongoing investigation of Russian manipulation in the 2016 election. But information related to foreign interference in our democratic processes is in the public interest. In contrast, leaking transcripts of the president’s calls with other heads of state, as happened last week, could compromise U.S. diplomatic interests and served only to embarrass Trump.

Here’s something we never thought we’d have occasion to say: Jason Kessler and Charlottesville officials are both right. Up to a point. City leaders said early this week that they would approve Mr. Kessler’s petition for a rally if the alt-right organizer would move his demonstration from newly named Emancipation Park, where the Robert E. Lee statue stands, to McIntire Park. Mr. Kessler is furious. The whole point of having the rally at Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, is to support the statue in the face of efforts to remove it. The symbolic impact is lost if the protest is moved, he said. He’s right. But city officials say that the rally, and the counter-protests planned to oppose it, have grown too large for the area to contain. So the city also is right.
Daily Progress