Transparency News 9/4/14

Thursday, September 4, 2014  

State and Local Stories

Fluvanna County has failed to meet a two week deadline set by a judge in the Davenport lawsuit to produce vital emails from the email account of former County Administrator Cabell Lawton. Attorneys representing the county say the emails have been lost or destroyed. Lawton served as county administrator from 2003-2010, during which time the Board of Supervisors voted to construct the new high school and chose which bonds to use to fund the construction. The order to meet the deadline was issued at an Aug. 14 hearing in Fluvanna County Circuit Courthouse presided over by Circuit Judge Alfred D. Swersky. Swersky told county attorneys, “you’ve got two weeks to get them, two weeks from today. And I don’t think I have to remind everybody in this room what the serious ramifications are to the county if these things cannot be or are not produced.” The two week deadline set by the judge fell on Thursday, Aug. 28.
Fluvanna Review

Hampton Mayor George Wallace capered down a trail of economic development and school system successes Wednesday afternoon during his first state of the city address at the Hampton Roads Convention Center. Wallace's speech was the first state of the city address given by a Hampton mayor in recent years. The event was organized by the Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. Similar pay-to-attend events will be held this year in Newport News and Poquoson. Just prior to the event, a 20-person picket line of senior citizens stood outside the convention center holding signs to protest the City Council's May decision to remove a property tax exemption for the elderly. Wallace made a subtle nod to the protesters, mentioning the group as he discussed the city's IValue campaign, which solicits public opinion on budget topics. "While our openness and transparency has led to many viewpoints being reached – if you don't believe me then look at the picket lines outside – but we're committed to build Hampton to better expectations," he said.
Daily Press

Roanoke City Clerk Stephanie Moon-Reynolds acknowledged she ran afoul of her professional code of ethics when she aggressively advocated against passage of a measure before the Roanoke City Council last month that would allow alcohol sales in a park in her neighborhood. She also strayed from the expectations of her employers — the city council. Moon-Reynolds signed a petition opposing the matter that was presented to the council at its Aug. 4 meeting. She subsequently circulated a petition at a National Night Out event in the neighborhood and sent an email to a group of neighborhood leaders urging them to express their opposition in emails and at the next council meeting. “At that time I was only acting in the capacity as a private citizen … I was not trying to use my position to persuade anyone,” she said, though she admitted it could be seen that way. She also admitted her conduct was at odds with the code of ethics of the International Institute of Municipal Clerks, through which she is designated a “Master Municipal Clerk.” The code includes a pledge “to be ever mindful of my neutrality and impartiality, rendering equal service to all.”
Roanoke Times

Local governments are facing new realities. Citizens' trust in government has declined, and financial constraints do not allow local governments to deliver all of the services their communities would like. In response, citizens are changing as well. Increasingly, local residents and organizations are seizing opportunities to engage with their communities in their own ways by creating platforms that bypass government. These platforms are powered by inexpensive technology and driven by a desire for community improvement that is bottom-up. While some local governments are embracing this development, others are reacting defensively, at least initially. As this phenomenon grows, more and more local governments will be faced with the challenge of deciding what their stances should be toward these citizen-engagement platforms. In Alexandria, Va., a citizens' group launched ACTion Alexandria, an online platform for residents to engage in challenges, debate solutions, share stories and develop relationships, all on their own and without the help or permission of the city government. Even though ACTion Alexandria is a platform created and owned by citizens, the city government supports it and even partners with it.

National Stories

A study conducted by the Virginia-based survey firm McLaughlin & Associates and released in early August finds that the American public is solidly behind the idea of letting cameras into the country's highest court. Asked whether the court should allow "television cameras to film the court's proceedings and broadcast them live to the American people," 74 percent of respondents were in favor, 41 percent strongly so. A little strangely, a slightly smaller group -- 71 percent -- backed the idea of live online audiocasts of the proceedings. But both were more popular than requiring justices to release their financial disclosure forms online, and not just on paper. Only 68 percent liked that form of digital transparency.
Washington Post

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should stay out of the way of states that have passed laws prohibiting or limiting city-funded broadband networks that compete with private services, several groups have told the agency. The FCC, considering whether to preempt laws in 20 states that restrict municipal broadband projects, should instead give private broadband providers incentives to better service communities, several representatives of broadband providers wrote in comments to the agency.

Katie Townsend, a former litigation associate in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLP, has joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press as its first litigation director. In this new post, Townsend will oversee freedom of information activities of the Reporters Committee, as well as participate in a full range of media law issues with a focus on handling litigation brought by the Reporters Committee. Townsend is a 2007 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was a member of the editorial board of the Virginia Law Review, and a participant in the First Amendment Clinic. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Florida in 2004 with a B.A. in English and a B.S. in broadcast journalism. While pursuing her undergraduate degrees, she worked as a reporter and producer for a local AM news radio station.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press



The Virginia Way continues to tarnish the state’s image. In another example of activity that might not be illegal, but which is certainly dubious, the state’s tobacco commission has been handing out grants to its chairman’s kinfolk. That chairman would be Terry Kilgore, a state lawmaker and prominent Republican. It’s not unusual for some families to assume a disproportionate share of the leadership roles in certain rural communities, and there is no realistic way — nor perhaps even any real reason — to prevent that. But it certainly doesn’t look good when the normal course of business starts to look like familial self-dealing. At the very least, Terry Kilgore showed poor judgment by refusing to recuse himself from voting on grants that would be overseen by members of his family. There is also a broader question about whether the tobacco commission is receiving sufficient oversight.The ill-seeming votes, coupled with the Puckett brouhaha and a $4 million fraud case involving a former commissioner, suggest the commission is being run too loosely. Someone in Richmond needs to slip a leash on it — and give it a good yank.

Question: When is it appropriate to look askance at someone who did not break the law? Answer: When the law might not be strong enough to fully protect the public. Even if no special favors were granted, voting to send public money to family members appears questionable. Even if the vote falls inside the line of legality, it lands so close to that line that doubts can nonetheless arise. It’s best to stay well back from the line so that integrity of action is incontrovertibly clear. It should be standard operating procedure for a public official not to vote on financial awards to close family members. The questions such actions raise are inevitable.
Daily Progress

Testimony has ended in the long-running Richmond soap opera known as the Bob and Maureen McDonnell corruption trial. The jurors will get the case this week. It’s nice to have a breather from weeks of sordid revelations about loans, gifts and fancy vacations, eh? While we spend the holiday weekend contemplating whether the jury will acquit, convict or hang, there’s another question to ponder. Could this ever happen again? Many Virginians would like to believe no, that the General Assembly fixed all that when it tightened the Conflicts of Interest Act during the 2014 legislative session. To those folks I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale, some swampland in Florida and some stock in a perpetual-motion-machine company, too. In recent days I have slogged through many of the 2014 law’s 25,000 or so words. And the fact is, despite a sheen of principled high-mindedness, it has about as many teeth as the average newborn baby. There are so many loopholes you could drive truckloads of Rolexes right through them. There’s little, if anything, in the new law that would prevent some future governor or first family from playing the same games — or treating Virginians to the same tawdry spectacle we’ve witnessed this summer. It’s Labor Day weekend, lawmakers of the General Assembly. It looks like you’ve still got some work to do.
Dan Casey, Roanoke Times