Category Archives: Open Government

That Transparency Will Cost You

Robert Barnett, President, Virginia NAACP.   Photo credit: Richmond Free Press

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Attorney General Jason Miyares promised “to increase transparency” in regard to elections. In fact, this was one of the motivations behind the creation of the Election Integrity Unit. However, it seems that this transparency comes with a price.

As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Virginia NAACP filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records related to the establishment of the Election Integrity Unit, its expenditures and activities, and for records of documented cases of election fraud in Virginia. The AG’s office responded that the cost of providing the records requested would be $20,000.

The FOIA statutes authorize an agency to “make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred” a condition of providing the material requested. I do not know what material the NAACP requested nor the basis upon which the AG’s office calculated the cost, but $20,000 seems pretty high. It has been my personal experience that agencies pad these estimates as a way of discouraging requests. The NAACP could have challenged the reasonableness of the cost in court, but that would have taken time. Therefore, the organization paid. Continue reading

Democracy Dies in Drabness

City of Charlottesville office building… no, my bad, that’s an East German Stasi office building.

by Jock Yellott

Charlottesville’s City Hall used to be open to its citizens. We could go talk to people. Ask questions. Learn.

No longer. Front door locked. A guard in an air conditioned box. A citizen has to justify going inside. Where? Seeing whom? Why?

The guard calls upstairs to where I’m supposed to go, but no answer. She calls somebody else to let me in the door. I climb the stairs to the second floor and find… a newly installed second locked door. With camera. And a buzzer system.

I need to deliver something to the City Attorney. Buzz. Nobody answers.

The City Council Clerk? Buzz. Nobody answers. No surprise there, the clerk’s office door is usually shut with lights off. Last time the job was open was 2018, salary advertised at $70,532.80 to $137,538.96. My tax dollars at work. Or, not. No way to know who’s actually working if we can’t go in City Hall. Continue reading

Who Needs the General Assembly? Let the Budget Conferees Do It.

Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), chair of Senate Finance and Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), chair of House Appropriations. Photo credit: Richmond Times Dispatch

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Although legislating through the budget, a practice that used to be frowned upon, is not new, this year’s budget conferees are taking the practice to a new dimension.

The amendments released by the budget conferees include the following new provisions in the “General Provisions” section. In most cases, the Code of Virginia is amended. The remaining cases involve just language in the Appropriation Act.

  1. Changes to the tax code. These have become a standard practice.  This year there are provisions to increase the standard deduction, eliminate the state portion of the sales tax on groceries, increase income tax credits for military benefits, and make significant changes to the statutory  language regarding housing opportunity credits.
  2. University housing. To the extent that institutions of higher education operate student housing during breaks, requires them to allow eligible foster students to stay in them free of charge.
  3. Casino referendum. Prevents the city of Richmond from having a second referendum on casinos until November 2023.
  4. Private school. Exempts a private school from licensing requirements.  (The school was previously exempted until repeal of the applicable statutory provision in 2020.)
  5. Games of skill. Changes the definition of games of skill.
  6. Marijuana and hemp. Establishes a criminal penalty for possession of four ounces to one pound of marijuana. Changes requirements for labeling of products including industrial hemp. This is the first time that I remember the budget bill being used to amend the criminal code and impose a new criminal penalty.

Continue reading

Some Basic Transparency Education Needed

Eric Moeller, Commonwealth Chief Transformation Officer

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

One of Governor Youngkin’s “Day One” actions was the establishment of the Commonwealth Chief Transformation Officer as a member of his cabinet, along with the Office of Transformation within the Office of the Governor.  Executive Order Number Five lays out the functions of that official and his office:  “The primary responsibilities of the Commonwealth Chief Transformation Officer will be to help build a culture of transparency, accountability, and constructive challenge across our government; ensure employees at all levels of government are reminded that our government works for the citizens of Virginia….”

Eric Moeller was appointed the Commonwealth Chief Transformation Officer.  In building “a culture of transparency,” I suggest that Mr. Moeller start on the fifth floor of the Patrick Henry Building where the Office of the Governor and offices of cabinet members are located.  The first order of business should be a class on the basic requirements of Virginia law regarding transparency and accountability. Continue reading

Transformation Has a Long Way to Go

Eric Moeller, Chief Transformation Officer

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Eric Moeller, Governor Youngkin’s Chief Transformation Officer, has his work cut out for him. In Executive Order No. 5, the Governor said that the chief responsiblities of the position would be to “to help build a culture of transparency, accountability, and constructive challenge across our government.”

As for building a “culture of transparency and accountability,” Mr. Moeller should start with the Department of Education and Department of Health. The Virginia Mercury reports that officials in several agencies have turned down numerous FOIA requests it has submitted. DOE and VDH seemed to be erecting the most obstacles.

To be fair, agencies in previous administrations have also freely invoked FOIA exemptions, justifiably or not, in response to requests for information or documents. Contributors to this blog have fought with the University of Virginia. I have had skirmishes with the Dept. of Corrections. On the other hand, some agencies have been very cooperative. James Sherlock has complimented VDH staff on their help and I have had good responses from VCCS, among others.

In summary, agencies invoking the “governor’s working papers and correspondence” exemption is not new; it has been done under governors in the past. But Governor Youngkin promised us things would be different under him.  So, go to it, Eric — start transforming that culture into one of transparency and accountability. The Monroe Building, home of the Dept. of Education and the Madison Building, home of the Dept. of Health, as well as the Patrick Henry Building, home of the Office of the Governor, would be good places to start.

FOIA Council Response on Open Meeting Requirements in Discussions of Local Government Contracts with Public Unions

Courtesy collectivebargaining.com

by  James C. Sherlock

I submitted questions to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council concerning FOIA open meetings requirements applicable to local government sessions discussing contracts with unions.

I received a very prompt and thorough reply.  

The following is the response of Alan Gernhart, Esq., Executive Director. Continue reading

Loudoun School Board Flouts Law, Constitution

Loudoun County School Board meeting… before the restrictions. Photo credit: Loudoun Times

by Emilio Jaksetic

According to The Virginia Star, the Loudoun County School Board has issued new procedures for its public meetings that improperly restrict the right of Virginians to comment at public meetings.

Citing “ongoing security threats” the school system website declared: “Only people signed up to speak to the School Board will be allowed to enter the building. For everyone’s safety, no public viewing area will be open during the public comment portion of the meeting.” Also: “Although the School Board is committed to public input, there remains concern about the safety of all participants in the public-input process. The safety and security of all staff, students and visitors remains our highest priority.”

Any School Board rules or procedures limiting speech at public meetings must comply with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (See the Attorney General Opinion of April 15, 2016.) Further, criticisms of governmental officials — including personal attacks — are protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Accordingly, public criticisms of Loudoun County Public Schools and the Loudoun County School Board are protected by the First Amendment and cannot be impeded by the School Board. Continue reading

DMV Still Hiding Full Gas Tax Amounts

by Steve Haner

The Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles is now hiding only 22% of the state’s existing motor fuels tax with misleading website data, not the 26% it was hiding when I wrote about this last year.

In the chart you first find searching DMV on motor fuel tax rates, set out below, there is no reference to a statewide wholesale tax of 7.6 cents per gallon on gasoline. It is MIA, leaving the chart reporting a tax of only 26.2 cents. (That is up 5 cents from a year ago, and that is why the percentage “hidden” dropped.) Continue reading

Holding Richmond Public Schools Accountable — Part I

by James C. Sherlock

We have discussed here the failures of the City of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) in educating its economically disadvantaged children, as well as the abysmal performance of Black children in its schools.  

I intend to help readers understand how it manages to fail repeatedly even with major federal funding as guardrails and state oversight officially in place.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) such as RPS and its schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet state academic standards.

It is useful to drill down into the details of that program so that readers can understand how every school district in Virginia is supposed to plan and execute the education of poor kids to improve their chances of success.

The question that will remain when I finish will be accountability.  

How does a system like the Richmond Public Schools continue to submit similar paperwork every year and every year fail to meet its stated goals? Where is the accountability? Why do the people of Richmond put up with it?  Continue reading

Federal COVID Funding to Virginia K-12 Schools

by James C. Sherlock

The federal government allocated a great deal of money in each of two different pieces of legislation in 2020 to provide COVID-related relief to K-12 schools.

I will endeavor here to explain briefly what that means to Virginia.

The two pieces of 2020 federal legislation that provide funding to K-12 schools were:

  • Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27, 2020; and
  • Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 (CRRSA) signed into law on December 27, 2020

Two of the major program elements under each of those two bills are :

  • Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER and ESSER II) funding – Virginia’s allocation is $1.2 billion dollars, 90% of which is to be sub-allocated by formula to school districts.
  • Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEERS and GEERS II) funding – $132 million to be allocated to the neediest public schools and non-public schools at the Governor’s discretion.  Money for the Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools (EANS) program is part of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.  Virginia’s EANS allocation was $46,618,019. For comparison, total Virginia K-12 school spending from all sources was estimated by the NEA at $17.8 billion in 2018-19.

By way of comparison, the federal government sent $1 billion to Virginia for K-12 schools in 2019, including big money from the Department of Agriculture for the National School Lunch program ($247 million) and other non-educational programs, so the 2020 COVID supplementals already exceed the original annual federal appropriations for Virginia. Continue reading

Fix the Structurally Broken Virginia Government

by James C. Sherlock

Great Seal of Virginia

When offered a choice of reasons for failures of large scale government actions, your first choice should always be incompetence, not bad intentions.

Big government requires competent legislatures, competent management and  control of executive departments, apolitical oversight by attorneys general and objective studies of its failures if it has any hope of being efficient and effective.

Absolutely no one after seeing the Virginia government reaction to COVID would accuse it of any of that. We need to fix it.

Unintended consequences of legislation

Readers just had an extended discussion over my column on the unintended consequences of minimum wage hikes.

It should be not too much to ask that Virginia politicians demand a full study of the effects of legislation, including minimum wage legislation, that is guaranteed to have far-reaching effects on the state. But they do not do it in the case of minimum wage hikes.

A structural problem in the General Assembly Continue reading

Democrats Propose Expanded Virginia Government Personal Information Collection, Integration and Dissemination

George Orwell

by James C. Sherlock

There are few things the Left desires more than government access to personal data on every citizen and everything he or she does. Virginia continues down that path.

Government Data Collection & Dissemination Practices Act Chapter 38 of Title 2.2 of the Code of Virginia (§ 2.2-3800 et seq.) reads in part:

B. The General Assembly finds that:

1. An individual’s privacy is directly affected by the extensive collection, maintenance, use and dissemination of personal information;

2. The increasing use of computers and sophisticated information technology has greatly magnified the harm that can occur from these practices;

3. An individual’s opportunities to secure employment, insurance, credit, and his right to due process, and other legal protections are endangered by the misuse of certain of these personal information systems; and

4. In order to preserve the rights guaranteed a citizen in a free society, legislation is necessary to establish procedures to govern information systems containing records on individuals.

Democrats in the General Assembly consider those principles trumped by their desires for control of every aspect of citizens lives from birth until death. Thus they are leading an effort to expand government collection, dissemination and integration of citizens’ personal information.  Continue reading

Joe Biden, the SALT Cap and Virginia’s Hidden Taxes

by DJ Rippert

SALT of the Earth. The Trump Administration pushed through a change to the US tax code which capped the deduction for State And Local Taxes (SALT) at $10,000 per year. Previously there had been no cap. The imposition of the cap effectively increased the federal taxes paid by high-income earners, especially in high tax states / localities. Given that many high-income, high-tax areas in the U.S .are solidly Democratic, this loophole reduction rankled Democrats in the Congress. Those Democrats have made several unsuccessful attempts to repeal the cap.

Democrats are likely to win the presidency in the upcoming election and may take control of the U.S. Senate as well. If that happens, it is likely that they will make good on their prior efforts to remove the SALT cap. In Virginia, Democrats control the House of Delegates, the Senate and the Governor’s mansion. They have used that control to raise state taxes including the passage of a number of hidden taxes that have been implemented through regulation. If Joe Biden is elected, will the hidden taxes imposed by Virginia’s Democrats put the state’s residents at a disadvantage since they won’t be deductible when the SALT cap is lifted? Continue reading

Amanda Chase and Mark Herring: the Odd Couple in Constitutional Deception?

by Paul Goldman

The Virginia Bill of Rights – Article I of the Virginia Constitution – grants you and me the right to cast an informed vote free from government manipulation. When considering this right, I cannot decide who is the bigger phony: Republican gubernatorial hopeful Senator Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, or Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring.

According to Chase, the gun on her hip and leadership role in the “Transparency Caucus” mean citizens can trust her to protect them against being manipulated by the political elite. As for Herring, he is seeking re-election as legal gunslinger whose leadership role in bringing federal lawsuits against outside special interests shows he can be trusted to protect Virginians from the financial elite.

Move over Oscar and Felix: Here come Amanda and Mark. They are the Odd Couple selling the biggest constitutional scam in Virginia since 1902.

Back then the General Assembly, backed by the Attorney General, enacted the “white supremacist” Constitution disenfranchising 90% of African Americans and 50% of white voters (this latter statistic is seldom cited). The political elite in Virginia have long feared a free and informed vote of all the people. The actions of Chase and Herring here in 2020 demonstrate the continued existence of this bipartisan disdainful elitist element in Virginia politics. Continue reading

Maybe We Can Sue

by James C. Sherlock

Updated August 30, 3:30 pm

I wrote yesterday about a House of Delegates bill that ultimately was passed by the House Committee for Courts of Justice as House Bill No. 5074 Amendment In the Nature of A Substitute (the bill).  

I wrote of its effects on public officials and owners and managers of private companies for violations of COVID-19 regulations. The bill makes them not just accountable to state and federal regulators, but also personally civilly liable for the slightest violation of any part of the virtually unclimbable wall of applicable regulations. And Virginia has the strictest COVID-19 occupational safety regulations in the nation.

This essay will discuss the ethics of two different original bills and reveal the secretive process by which the final substitute was developed in committee. It will ask the General Assembly to clean up a scandal of its own making.

Some may say this “goes on all the time.” It may, but that does not mean it should.

Continue reading