Transparency News 9/9/19



September 9, 2019


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state & local news stories


The legionella investigation at schools in Chesterfield County has led to 49 cooling towers at 34 schools being cleaned and retested. School Board chairman Rob Thompson said the bacteria has been taken care of for good. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Thompson says he inquired and obtained powerpoint slides with a visual inspection report from the county health department. In a statement, the Health Department said: "We were asked to present specifically on the Schools at the 8/28 Board of Supervisors meeting since the County ultimately has oversight per Charter over the Schools. The same presentation had been delivered to county and CCPS leadership a week to 10 days prior to the 8/28 Board of Supervisors meeting and at a school liaison committee meeting on 8/26 that was also open to the public." Thompson said he felt the reports for schools and businesses should have been presented together.

Former Petersburg City Attorney Joseph Preston is suing the Petersburg City Council and a local television station that reported on his firing last year. Preston is seeking $2.5 million from WTVR-6, $2 million from the council and its members for damage to his reputation, and $77,500 in severance pay he alleges he was owed after being ousted from the post he held for two years. The 24-page complaint filed in Petersburg Circuit Court on Wednesday said he had been satisfactorily performing all his job duties when the council voted 7-0 to terminate his contract on Sept. 4, 2018. Right after the council voted to fire Preston, the panel unanimously approved a second motion that said the former city attorney could go to City Hall to retrieve his belongings under escort by a Petersburg police officer. The lawsuit said that the reference to the former attorney needing a police escort while at City Hall was repeated by WTVR. The station also said in a Sept. 5 story that Preston had been “escorted out” of the City Council meeting. But Preston said in his lawsuit he was not escorted out of that meeting, adding that he was on vacation in Massachusetts at the time the meeting was held.
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Public defender’s offices have long struggled with high turnover. But lately, one time-consuming part of the job is driving lawyers out even faster. Attorneys are quitting at least partly because they’re swamped by the amount of video footage they have to review from police body-worn cameras. And in localities without public defender’s offices, court-appointed attorneys are struggling to maintain their own law practices and keep up with the body camera footage. Generally, the lawyers aren’t advocating for body camera footage to go away; both prosecutors and defense attorneys see the benefits that lead to justice for clients and victims. But they are concerned about the time it’s taking to review the footage — something that has to be done regardless of whether the video ultimately reveals any new information about a case.
Daily Press

Virginia State Police have investigated people and financial records from Texas to Michigan in a search for the more than $620,000 that was recently stolen from Spotsylvania County, court records show. At least $378,000 had been recovered as of late last month, according to an affidavit for a search warrant filed in Spotsylvania Circuit Court by state police special agent Bethany Finch. Police hope information from accounts they hope to obtain via search warrants will lead to more money and evidence in the ongoing investigation.
Free Lance-Star

Augusta County has spent almost $60,000 for outside legal counsel this year in multiple lawsuits in which the county is involved. Since Jan. 1, the county has spent $58,381 to handle four active lawsuits. A bulk of that money has been spent for the ongoing McKee Foods and Hershey Chocolate of Virginia lawsuits over tax assessments. Two other lawsuits were filed midway through the year. That's in addition to the salary the county pays its in-house attorney, James Benkahla. His annual salary was $144,668 in the 2019 fiscal year, according to previous News Leader reporting. Contracted services for outside counsel are budgeted under the county attorney's budget, according to Deputy County Administrator Jennifer Whetzel.
News Leader



editorials & columns


During the 2018-2019 school year, four public school districts in Oklahoma hired contract lobbyists. In addition to raising concerns about government accountability and indirect funneling of taxpayer dollars to political campaigns, schools’ use of contract lobbyists may also reduce government transparency and sidestep open-records laws. Under Oklahoma law, most written communications sent to lawmakers by public school officials are open records that can be viewed by the public. However, because the Legislature exempts itself from open-records requirements, critics worry that written communication sent to lawmakers by a lobbyist who is not a direct employee of a school, but a contract worker, may effectively evade open-records requirements.
Ray Carter, The City Sentinel