Transparency News, 9/21/20


 September 21, 2020
There was no issue of VCOG's daily newsletter Friday, Sept. 18.
state & local news stories
“No one’s privacy is compromised by saying how many — out of a pool of thousands — cases there are.”
A bill that would have opened up past police investigative records to the public died Friday when a state Senate committee referred it for further review. The measure would have ended police and prosecutors’ longstanding practice of shielding nearly all their files from the public — be they incident reports from last week or case files that haven’t been looked at in decades. Though it sailed through the House of Delegates last week, the Senate General Laws Committee voted 14-0 on Friday to “pass the bill by indefinitely” and send it to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council for more study. “We don’t live in a monarchy,” said Jason Nixon, the widower of Municipal Center shooting victim Kate Nixon. “We live in a republic. We’re supposed to have the information given to us.”
Daily Press

A state Senate panel halted a bill from Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, that would have opened past police investigative files to the public. The Democratic-controlled Senate General Laws and Technology Committee voted 14-0 Friday to block House Bill 5090 and send it to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act Council with the goal being to come up with a reworked bill for the regular session beginning in January 2021. There was interest among lawmakers and some who work in the court system for the concept, but they said the details of what the bill should look like needed further vetting.
The Roanoke Times

When school employees in Hampton Roads test positive for the coronavirus, the public won’t know where they work. Districts are providing citywide totals at most, even as teachers — and in some cities students — get ready to return to school buildings for the first time since March. Norfolk Public Schools would not disclose whether it had any cases, period, since the start of the school year. Every other district in the seven cities would provide only the number of cases reported districtwide, not by school. Legislation to require the disclosure of outbreaks at schools and other group facilities has passed both the House and Senate unanimously during the special session. Oliver spoke in favor of the bills, which aren’t law yet but could go into effect next month. None of the existing laws protecting student privacy or health privacy support withholding information about cases districtwide, as Norfolk has done, said Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “No one’s privacy is compromised by saying how many — out of a pool of thousands — cases there are,” Rhyne said.
The Virginian-Pilot

With their makeshift desks staggered for social distance at the Science Museum of Virginia, senators have continued robust, in-person debates, reminiscent of healthier times on the chamber floor inside the Capitol building. The House of Delegates' meetings — all virtual, all the time — haven’t gone as smoothly. At least one delegate has trouble with the remote electronic voting system during each meeting, and House Clerk Suzette Denslow has to call their name and ask for a voice vote, while reminding lawmakers to mute themselves when they’re not speaking. House Republicans — in the minority for the first time in a generation — have complained of dropped calls, unexplained technology problems that led to missed votes, and invited guests not being able to speak during committee meetings
The Virginian-Pilot

Albemarle County’s COVID-19 restrictions will now be in place until Nov. 18. On Wednesday night, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors adopted a new, non-emergency ordinance — nearly the same as one it passed in July — that still makes masks mandatory in public, limits restaurants to 50% occupancy indoors and restricts certain public and private in-person gatherings to a maximum of 50 people. Some of the deadlines in the ordinance were updated, including requests for records under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Originally, the ordinance said that any deadline for responses to a request for records under the state’s FOIA requirements are “extended indefinitely as may be necessary.” That has been changed to “may be extended to the earliest date thereafter practicable.” The Daily Progress has experienced delays in multiple FOIA responses regarding information about the county government, including one for supervisors’ emails that took more than 20 business days to receive.
The Daily Progress

As local activists face fines for organizing unpermitted events, some Charlottesville officials and city councilors are at odds over the city’s approach to a planned Aug. 12 demonstration and its slow move to issue the fines. The city has started cracking down on events that don’t receive a permit in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Outgoing City Manager Tarron Richardson, whose last day is Sept. 30, issued a warning ahead of the Aug. 12 event to community organizers saying they could be cited for it. According to emails obtained through FOIA, Richardson’s statement was supported by leadership in the police and fire departments, but received pushback from Councilors Michael Payne and Sena Magill for holding a hard line around a delicate subject.
The Daily Progress

Roanoke should shift plans for building a new Valley Metro bus station to an industrial site outside of downtown, according to a developer who helped defeat the original plan for a downtown center transit last month. If that could happen, Richmond developer Bill Chapman is offering to build a large apartment complex on the proposed bus station site near a local museum by the end of 2023. The Richmond developer said he would like to spend millions more. Just how much the apartment complex would cost hasn’t been released, nor has the number of proposed units. An email obtained by The Roanoke Times using the Virginia Freedom of Information Act said that the city council rejected Chapman’s suggestion in a closed meeting Aug. 27. Interviews last week with council members suggested there could be more to the story.
The Roanoke Times

Justin Hendrix, a Pittsylvania County native now living in New York, started getting worried about his family around here when COVID-19 cases began to accelerate. Being involved with the COVID Tracking Project in New York, he said he knew his way around the [seemingly] endless stream of data about cases. He was keeping a spreadsheet of what was happening in Danville and Pittsylvania County by reviewing the Virginia Department of Health’s data as a personal project. The next step was simple. “There is nothing complicated about this site, which relies entirely on VDH data,” Hendrix, 42, wrote in an email to the Register & Bee. “The main thing I hoped to do is make it easy to see the key figures such as the daily new case rate and average test positivity without having to click through multiple charts and pages on the VDH site.”
Register & Bee
stories of national interest
Supreme Court justices make $265,600 a year. The chief justice gets $277,700. Their law clerks do a lot better. After a year of service at the court, they are routinely offered signing bonuses of $400,000 from law firms, on top of healthy salaries of more than $200,000. What are the firms paying for? In a profession obsessed with shiny credentials, a Supreme Court clerkship glitters. Hiring former clerks burnishes the firms’ prestige, making them more attractive to clients. Still, the former clerks are typically young lawyers just a couple of years out of law school, and the bonuses have a second and more problematic element, said Stephen Gillers, an expert on legal ethics at New York University. “They’re buying something else: a kind of inside information about how the court is thinking and how individual justices might be thinking,” he said. The Supreme Court appears to recognize that this is a problem. Its rules impose a two-year ban barring former clerks from working on “any case pending before this court or in any case being considered for filing in this court.” 
The New York Times

The union representing Schenectady (New York) city police is seeking to block the release of disciplinary records for the officer involved in a controversial arrest this summer. The Schenectady Police Benevolent Association filed a lawsuit on behalf of Officer Brian Pommer seeking to block the release of records until a hearing later this month. State Supreme Court Justice Mark Powers issued a temporary restraining order barring the city from releasing the records until the Sept. 23 hearing, according to Albany Proper, which first reported on the injunction on Wednesday.
The Daily Gazette