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Attorney General Jason Miyares joins multistate action to end CDC’s unlawful mask mandate

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Attorney General Miyares is joining 20 other states in a multistate action against President Biden’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention continued use of an unlawful mask mandate for public transportation.

The mandate is another example of federal overreach and is dependent on a failed interpretation of a quarantine statute that has been ruled against in court.

“The CDC’s mask mandate on public transportation, like air travel, is scientifically unnecessary at this stage of the pandemic. Not only are the CDC’s mask mandates for public transportation an example of federal overreach, but they are outdated as states across the country have lifted mask mandates in other aspects of daily life,” said Attorney General Jason Miyares.

The attorneys general argue that the CDC’s unlawful mask mandate exceeds the agency’s authority by not authorizing economy-wide measures. The statute does not permit mask requirements for individuals who show no sign of infection, which the mandate requires, and the mandate does not consider the states’ actions to control the spread of COVID-19. Finally, the mandate violates the anti-commandeering doctrine by requiring state-run conveyances and transportation hubs to enforce the rule.


Attorney General Miyares joined 20 other attorneys general in the multistate action led by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and asked for the mask mandate to be dropped and for a permanent injunction against enforcement.

To read the full complaint, click here.

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Top Prince William election official says he’s quitting amid dispute with local GOP

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Prince William Registrar Eric Olsen announced Friday that he’s quitting his job after the next election, citing health concerns and the growing stress of operating under intense partisan scrutiny. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

 

The top election official in one of Virginia’s biggest counties announced Friday that he’s quitting his job later this year due to stress and called out what he described as a “bullshit” ploy by local Republicans to try to undermine his office by installing their own people in jobs overseeing polling places.

Prince William County Registrar Eric Olsen said he would resign after the midterm elections after a local GOP leader made phone calls to election officers suggesting they would be getting different Election Day assignments than the ones Olsen had announced. The elections office also received a letter from a lawyer for the local GOP threatening a lawsuit if Republicans didn’t get more representation in the higher-ranking election chief and assistant chief roles.

Olsen said he had worked diligently to recruit more Republican election officers in Prince William — a Northern Virginia county of more than 465,000 people that will be a key battleground in this year’s congressional races — without much assistance from the local Republican party he felt was turning needlessly hostile.


“I am resigning after this election,” Olsen said to the surprise of many attending Friday’s Prince William Electoral Board meeting. “Because if this is how the general registrars are treated when they are trying to do the right thing, then by God, what happens when something goes wrong?”

Olsen, who got the Prince William job just last year after more than a decade of elections work, added that he had recently received bad medical news about a heart condition, and the stress and pressure of working in an atmosphere of rampant suspicion of election officials were becoming too hazardous to his health.

“When I get pissed off, I get pissed off. And I think this is bullshit,” Olsen said. “If I’m dead next year, I won’t be a very good registrar anyway.”

The surprise announcement comes amid growing concern about the morale of the people who do the ground-level work of running Virginia elections. Local election offices throughout the state are still facing intense scrutiny of their operations, much of it tied to unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories about fraud and other problems in the 2020 presidential election. As a result of that, many Republican activists are showing an increased interest in signing up for jobs that let them keep a close eye on how voting works.

 

Campaign signs outside the election office in Prince William County, a closely watched battleground in the midterm contests. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

 

Prince William appears to be the rare Virginia locality that had a legitimate election problem in 2020. The county’s former registrar, Michele White, was recently indicted on corruption related to the 2020 cycle, but state and local officials are refusing to explain the case.

The new Prince William controversy centers on a state law that gives local political parties oversight of who’s serving as election officers and extra power to designate who should serve as chief and assistant chief election officers. The law requires parties to submit nominees for election officers early in the year, instructs registrars to pull from those lists “if practicable,” and prioritizes partisan nominees for the chief roles.

Republicans suggested Olsen was overreacting to a request that he follow a law that they said prohibits Prince William from using more experienced nonpartisan election officers if a Republican, no matter their experience level, is available.

“Best efforts and good intentions are not a substitute for obeying the law,” said Republican Electoral Board member London Steverson. “And I’m sorry Eric has gone to the nuclear option here.”

In an interview, Prince William County GOP Chair Denny Daugherty said he’s simply asking the county to honor the political parties’ rights to pick their own representatives instead of having to accept the registrar’s choices.

“I shouldn’t be stuck with people who are not really Republicans, and she shouldn’t be stuck with people who aren’t really Democrats,” Daugherty said, motioning to Prince William Democratic Committee Chair Tonya James.

James said she felt there may be valid concern about the process, but she said it could be addressed in future election cycles instead of creating uncertainty just a few weeks out from Election Day.

“I do understand Denny’s concerns about some of the chiefs and assistant chiefs,” James said. “I’m not concerned to the point that maybe they need to be reassigned at this juncture. But moving forward, that needs to be a priority.”

Daugherty estimated the issue involved 20 to 30 positions.

The state Department of Elections recently resent old guidance clarifying the process of partisan involvement in picking officers of election, a document Daugherty said backs his interpretation of the law.

The dustup drew a thundering condemnation from Prince William Electoral Board member Keith Scarborough, a Democrat, who pounded the table while calling the GOP’s move “incredibly outrageous.”

“I genuinely cannot believe that anyone thinks it’s a good idea to take an experienced chief out of a precinct and plug-in someone who’s never worked an election,” Scarborough told reporters after the meeting. “If that’s what the Republicans think should be happening, I don’t buy it.”

After the electoral board held a closed session to discuss the issue, Scarborough indicated the county would not be acceding to Daugherty’s request. But Olsen said he expects the two sides to try to work out a compromise.

Daugherty said he was surprised the board didn’t appear to be consulting with the county attorney on what the law requires.

“It would be a shame if we had to file a suit in order to get their involvement in reviewing what is patently illegal,” Daugherty said.

Most of Prince William’s voters live in the 7th Congressional District, where a hotly competitive contest is playing out between Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger and Republican challenger Yesli Vega. The county also touches the 10th Congressional District, where Republican Hung Cao is challenging Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton in a race that should favor Democrats but could be close if Republicans have a surprisingly strong showing in November.

Though Olsen won bipartisan praise as a competent and effective election administrator who’s served Prince William voters well, he told reporters he wouldn’t reconsider his decision to step down, possibly as soon as late November.

In 2020, Olsen said, Prince William had 466 Democratic election officers and 201 Republicans. This year, he said, there are 399 Democrats and 402 Republicans, the result of a targeted recruitment effort by his office to achieve partisan parity.

“To do all that and then to have the party come in with a team of lawyers … They didn’t even nominate officers by the deadline,” Olsen said. “They haven’t done much in the way of recruiting.”

The timing of Olsen’s departure could be significant. For now, Democrats have a 2-1 majority on the county electoral board to which Olsen reports. But the board will flip to Republican control at the end of the year due to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory last year, raising questions about who will be in control when the board picks Olsen’s successor.

“It’s not a good time to be an election official right now,” Olsen said as he publicly announced his departure. “And I think there’s legitimate fear about what could come down the road for people who are just trying to do their jobs.”

Unanswered questions about 2020

At the meeting, Scarborough, the Democratic board member, denounced the trend of election offices being inundated with Freedom of Information Act requests about the 2020 election. Those requests, he said, are a waste of time and money by people still hung up on “the big lie” that widespread fraud occurred in 2020.

But Scarborough said he could not comment on the pending corruption case that has raised doubts about the accuracy of the official vote totals Prince William reported in 2020.

Scarborough largely declined to discuss the indictment of White on charges of corrupt conduct, making a false statement as an election official and neglect of duty by an election official. Asked if the county’s 2020 vote counts were accurate, Scarborough said, “that’s one of the things in question.”

“But I can tell you that whatever issues there were with the vote reporting, there was nothing that would’ve changed the results of any election on the ballot,” he said.

Electoral Board member Pamela R. Walker said Attorney General Jason Miyares hasn’t briefed local officials on the case.

“So I don’t know what he’s found,” Walker said.

Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita refused to elaborate on the indictments this week, saying, “I cannot comment on ongoing cases.”

The attorney general’s office revealed the indictments against White just a few days before announcing a dedicated “election integrity unit.” In a statement last month, the Republican Party of Virginia said the prosecution sends “a strong message to election officials throughout the state to follow the law.”

State Board of Elections Chairman Bob Brink also refused to comment on the case, citing “pending litigation.”

In an interview, Olsen said he isn’t fully aware of what the indictments are based on. But he acknowledged the problem, whatever it was, led to slightly skewed vote counts from Prince William in 2020.

“Were they accurate? No,” Olsen said. “Were they enough to make a difference in any of the races? No.”

Former President Donald Trump lost Virginia to President Joe Biden by ten percentage points or more than 450,000 votes.

In her first public comments on the matter, White told The Washington Post the case against her was a politically motivated effort by Republicans to justify the new election integrity unit. The attorney general’s office called that claim “utterly false.”

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Cyclist groups seek to delay demolition of old Nice Bridge over Potomac

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An aerial view of the new Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge over the Potomac River. (Courtesy of the Maryland Transportation Authority)

 

As Maryland prepares to demolish the historic Nice/Middleton Bridge that connects the southern part of the state with Virginia over the Potomac River, bicycle advocates are seeking to delay those plans until the completion of an impact study.

The bicycle advocacy groups, which include Potomac Heritage Trail Association, Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Association, and Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club, allege in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, that state agencies, including the Maryland Transportation Authority, violated state and federal environmental review laws by changing the project from its original conception and failing to study the impact of demolishing the bridge. The groups asking for a temporary restraining order to halt the demolition also allege that the authority lacks the power to destroy the bridge under environmental laws.

“Using explosives to demolish parts of the Historic Nice Bridge or the rubble from the bridge to create a ‘reef’ has not been evaluated appropriately for the impact on the natural habitat and human environment, including the taking of endangered species or disruption of their habitats,” the complaint states.


The plaintiffs also allege that the defendants never considered the “cumulative effects” of the construction plan and the potential demolition of the old bridge on human, environmental and historic resources, as well as on publicly or privately owned landmark sites listed or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

The old Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas “Mac” Middleton Bridge, which opened in December 1940, is adjacent to the new four-lane replacement bridge.

A view of the toll booth in front of the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge shortly after it was completed. (Courtesy of the Maryland Transportation Authority)

In November 2016, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan promised a pedestrian and bicycle lane would be built alongside the new bridge’s vehicle lanes amid community access concerns and to mitigate the impact of destroying the historic bridge.

However, in 2019, the Maryland Transportation Authority approved a bridge plan that excluded the project’s originally conceived $64 million, 10-foot two-way path.

Last July, U.S. lawmakers asked Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary James Ports. Jr. to delay destroying the historic bridge pending an evaluation.

Ports responded that the authority would proceed with its plan.

The bicycle advocacy groups included in their complaint the Maryland Department of Transportation and Maryland Transportation Authority, as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration for providing “permissions and funding necessary for the project without having undertaken or requiring appropriate consideration under NEPA and the other Environmental Review Laws.”

Bridge opening imminent as court sets hearing for a restraining order on Oct. 11

According to Michael MacWilliams, an attorney representing the Maryland defendants, plans for the removal of the historic bridge are moving quickly.

MacWilliams said in an email to the Mercury Thursday that “mechanical demolition efforts in connection with the old bridge are scheduled to commence in earnest on Oct. 13.”

The Mercury confirmed that Maryland plans to move traffic to the new bridge the same day.

On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments on the restraining order in the U.S. District Court Northern Division in Baltimore at 1 p.m.

According to the construction webpage, the bridge is expected to open early next year.

The $463 million bridge replacement project includes Virginia’s $13 million contribution.

The replacement bridge will include four 12-foot-wide lanes with 2-foot shoulders, a significant expansion compared to the historic bridge’s two lanes with no shoulders. The new bridge will have all-electronic cashless tolling, a barrier-separated median between west- and eastbound lanes, and 2-foot shoulders allowing for taller ships to pass beneath its 135-foot clearance.

Brickley asks Virginia to consider a partnership with Maryland

David Brickley, president of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail Association and a former Virginia delegate, said Virginia should consider partnering with Maryland to create what would be the most prominent bicycle and pedestrian crossing in the country, clocking in at 1.7 miles.

The former Virginia delegate recently wrote to Gov. Glenn Youngkin and members of his cabinet about considering a partnership but said he felt like “Cinderella rushing towards midnight and trying to save this bridge before it’s too late.”

According to Maryland Matters, Virginia and King George previously considered taking over the old bridge but never pursued it.

Marshall Herman, a spokeswoman with the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the agency did not conduct a study but did engage with King George County and bicycle and trail groups about their interest in retaining and repurposing the bridge.

The groups discussed the cost of regular inspection and maintenance, potential issues with marine navigation due to the alignment of the piers, and permit issues due to federal requirements within the National Environmental Policy Act.

A King George County Administration Office representative directed the Mercury to VDOT for questions.

However, despite the lack of interest in taking over the structure, Brickley said Virginia residents have a strong interest in the bridge’s future.

He pointed to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge as one of the best examples of a bridge with a separate lane for pedestrians and bicyclists. In 1995, Brickley sponsored legislation allowing Virginia to join a regional compact to purchase the bridge and replace it.

Brickley said arguments ensued over eliminating the Wilson bridge’s bicycle and pedestrian lane, much as they have for the new Nice/Middleton Bridge. However, the lane remained in the project.

“Now, if you go up to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, it is a fantastic bridge for motorists and cyclists and hikers combined,” Brickley said. “It’s just what a bridge in the 21st century should be about.”

Maryland’s decision not to include such infrastructure in the new bridge is “unbelievably sad,” he said.

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Windsor discriminatory policing case moves forward and more headlines

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The state Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• Democratic leaders formally requested an investigation by the Office of the State Inspector General into why tourism officials used the firm that made Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s political ads to make a tourism video featuring the governor.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• The Virginia Department of Education refused to release records detailing how Youngkin’s proposed K-12 transgender policy was created.—VPM

• “Wexton, Cao spar over inflation, abortion in latest VA10 debate.”—Washington Post


• A lawsuit claiming the town of Windsor engaged in a “pattern of discriminatory policing” can move forward, a judge ruled.—13News Now

• With more than 7,000 participants signed up, Virginia’s new pay-per-mile system for drivers of fuel-efficient and electric vehicles is already the largest of its kind in the country.—Washington Post

• Visits to Virginia emergency rooms for mental health and substance abuse reasons jumped sharply during the pandemic.—WRIC

• A Giles County lime processing plant isn’t meeting air pollution standards, according to state officials.—Roanoke Times

• Workplace injuries and deaths declined in the state in 2020.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• A man arrested for allegedly participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was briefly a paid door-knocker for the Republican Party of Virginia last year.—Huffington Post

• The Virginia Employment Commission says it’s looking into 4,200 unemployment claims that “may have been compromised.”—Associated Press

• Federal authorities accused a Winchester man of planting a real pipe bomb at a Civil War reenactment event after being kicked out of a reenacting unit.—Northern Virginia Daily

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Biden to pardon all federal offenses for simple marijuana possession, review criminalization

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday announced executive actions that would pardon thousands of people with prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession.

Biden then called on governors to follow suit with state offenses for simple marijuana possession, saying that “just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”

The president also directed U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review how marijuana is classified under federal law as a Schedule I drug, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most dangerous classification, including substances like heroin and LSD.

Biden’s executive order to pardon simple possession includes the District of Columbia as well as people convicted in the federal court system.


“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement.

‘Failed approach to marijuana’

The move is intended to address the country’s “failed approach to marijuana,” a senior administration official said Thursday afternoon, minutes before the announcement.

Recreational use of marijuana is legal in 19 states, including Virginia, but there is still a mix of laws related to the drug. In 38 states, marijuana is allowed for medical purposes. Several others consider marijuana illegal in all forms.

Civil rights organizations and researchers have shown that charges for marijuana possession disproportionately affect Black and brown communities. For example, the ACLU found that Black people were 3.7 times more likely to be charged with marijuana possession compared to white people.

Police made 663,000 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in 2018, according to FBI data, which amounted to 40% of all drug arrests for that year.

A senior administration official said Thursday, “while white, Black, and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are disproportionately in jail for it.”

Senior administration officials said that even if a person has not been charged with or convicted of marijuana possession, as of Thursday’s date, “the pardon does cover that conduct.”

The Department of Justice will create an administrative process for those who are pardoned to obtain a certificate of their pardon “so that they will have documentation that they can show to law enforcement, employers, and others as needed,” a senior administration official said.

States moved first

States began decriminalizing or legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in 2012 when Colorado and Washington’s voters passed statewide ballot measures. Over the next decade, 17 more states followed suit. Those states have operated for years in conflict with federal laws that have kept the substance strictly illegal.

Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize marijuana in 2021, although state lawmakers have struggled to agree on the parameters of a retail market.

Marijuana will be legal in Virginia on July 1. Here’s what is and isn’t permitted under the new law.

The U.S. House passed legislation earlier this year to legalize marijuana nationally, but the bill failed to gain traction in the Senate.

The House voted 220-204 to approve the measure, which would fix the split between federal law and law in states where recreational marijuana is legal. Three Republicans joined all but two Democrats in approving the measure.

Democratic lawmakers reacted positively to Biden’s announcement, and several called for full legalization.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said federal drug policies relating to marijuana have harmed communities of color and torn families apart.

“These transformative actions are the latest manifestation of Democrats’ unyielding commitment to justice, especially for those unfairly harmed by cannabis criminalization,” she said in a statement.

“A great first step for equitable treatment under the law — but we can and we will do more when we (expand) our Democratic majorities in November,” Virginia’s Rep. Gerry Connolly said. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine called the move “wise and compassionate.”

U.S. Sen Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, applauded the move in a statement and called for passage of a bill he sponsored, along with New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, that would remove the substance from the list of controlled substances and expunge the records of anyone convicted of a marijuana-related crime.

“Legal protections for victims of the War on Drugs should be codified in law, cannabis should be descheduled and a federal regulatory system should be put in place to protect public health and safety,” he said.

Schumer called the action “historic” and said he hoped it would catalyze further congressional action.

“For far too long, the federal prohibition on cannabis and the War on Drugs has been a war on people, and particularly people of color,” the New York Democrat said in a statement. “President Biden’s action to pardon people convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law is a huge step forward to correct decades of over-criminalization.”

Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement that incarcerating people for possession of marijuana does not keep communities safer and is a waste of federal resources.

“We should instead be using those funds on evidence-based prevention and early intervention initiatives that actually reduce crime and save money,” he said.

GOP ties pardons to crime

Many more Democrats than Republicans commented on the move, which is in line with most Americans’ views on marijuana. This month, a MorningConsult/Politico poll found that 60% of respondents favored legalization.

Republicans who did comment largely framed the initiative as soft on crime. Republicans are making rising crime rates a campaign issue in next month’s elections.

“In the midst of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is giving blanket pardons to drug offenders — many of whom pled down from more serious charges,” Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas, said on Twitter. An earlier version of the tweet, which was deleted after nine minutes, complained of pardons to “potheads.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is retiring this year, said in a statement that the Justice Department should not issue “blanket pardons” and each offender should be looked at individually. Hutchinson was the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush.

“As governor, I have issued hundreds of pardons to those who have been convicted of drug offenses,” he said. “But in this time of rising crime, there should be a clear record of law-abiding conduct before pardons are issued.”

Hutchinson is staunchly anti-legalization and has publicly opposed the proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that would create a legal marijuana regime in Arkansas.

Candidates campaigning for Congress quickly weighed in on the announcement as well, with Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman saying in a statement that it’s “a massive step towards justice.”

“Too many lives — and lives of Black and brown Americans in particular — have been derailed by this criminalization of this plant,” Fetterman said.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for the open Senate seat, tweeted “legalize it” from his congressional Twitter account.

Schedule 1 drug

Unless Congress changes federal marijuana laws or the president takes further action, marijuana will likely stay classified as a Schedule 1 drug soon.

Senior administration officials said Thursday it will take a while for the HHS secretary and the attorney general to assess if marijuana should stay in the highest classification or drop to a lower category within the DEA’s system.

“The process will take some time because it must be based on a careful consideration of all of the available evidence, including scientific … and medical information that’s available,” the senior administration official said, adding that while Biden hasn’t set a timeline, he wants the review to be “expeditious.”

The DEA has five schedule classifications for legal and illegal drugs, with Schedule 1 including substances with a high potential for abuse and no medical use. Heroin, LSD and peyote are classified as Schedule 1 drugs along with marijuana.

The next category, Schedule 2, is supposed to host drugs with a high potential for abuse, which can lead to “severe psychological or physical dependence,” according to the DEA. Cocaine, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and oxycodone are all currently classified as Schedule 2.

Schedule 3 includes substances with a low to moderate likelihood of physical and psychological dependence, such as anabolic steroids and testosterone. According to the DEA, schedule 4 hosts drugs like Xanax, Valium, and Ambien that have a low potential for abuse. And Schedule 5 includes substances with a lower possibility of abuse than Schedule 4.

 

by Ariana Figueroa, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Commentary: Can Virginia transit providers innovate their way out of an operator shortage?

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Hampton Roads Transit had enough bus operators for just one week in May to provide riders with “reliable service,” according to an internal report.

But for the rest of 2022, Virginia’s largest public transportation provider has struggled to staff its dozens of routes — at one point, even facing a dearth of over 100 drivers in order to offer full service to the region of 1.8 million people.

Although HRT may be dealing with one of the worst operator shortages in the commonwealth, the agency’s experience is far from unique. This year, 92% of public transportation providers across America reported struggling to hire new employees. Even worse, nearly three in four transit agencies admitted to having to cut service or delay service increases due to a lack of staff.

As the nationwide shortage of bus operators takes its toll on commuters across the country, Virginia operators are attempting to innovate their way out of the crisis. Will it work?


A pre-pandemic problem

Long before the loss of over a million Americans to COVID-19 and the resultant Great Resignation, public transportation providers already had a problem attracting new recruits.

“I started to research this before the pandemic, and what surprised me is how long ago we saw this coming and how little was done to prepare for these shortages,” said Chris Van Eyken, a program manager at the national nonprofit TransitCenter. “This issue was first raised by Obama’s Department of Transportation in 2015, but little was done to address job quality. Sadly, where agencies took action, it was often undermined by COVID, which hindered recruitment.”

Now, the situation looks set to worsen should transit providers not boost the recruitment of younger workers. Whereas roughly 40% of America’s total workforce is over the age of 45, among bus operators, that figure is nearly 70%, according to Bus Operators in Crisis, a recently released report from TransitCenter.

In the document, Van Eyken lays out six main issues public transportation providers must address to keep existing operators and recruit new ones: compensation, safety, workplace culture, work hours and scheduling, facilities, and outdated hiring processes.

Beyond the broader economic and environmental need to have fully functioning public transit, Van Eyken frames the issue as one of social mobility.

“Solving this is also about keeping a pathway to the middle class open,” he explained. “A lot of the people who ride the bus are also the people who drive it. For a long time, the expectation was if you’re a bus driver, then you are middle class, but a lot of agencies’ pay has not kept up, so folks think, ‘Why should I do this hard job if I’m not getting paid well to do this hard job?’ We need to think more about our labor situation.”

Wages and working conditions

Across the Commonwealth, increasing pay has proven one of the most effective ways for transit providers to stop the bleeding.

Hampton Roads Transit worked with the operators’ union to increase base pay to $20 an hour, two bucks above the region’s living wage. Top operators can now earn up to $27 an hour. The agency is also offering $5,000 bonuses for new bus drivers, light-rail operators, and mechanics, provided they stay with the agency for a certain period of time.

Even Bay Transit — a nonprofit public transportation provider serving the Northern Neck and the Upper Peninsula — had to rethink wages and working conditions to halt its hemorrhaging of staff. At its lowest point, the Bay Transit had lost a quarter of its drivers and was forced to cease operating one of its three seasonal trollies for the first time in history. Today, Bay Transit is just seven drivers away from pre-pandemic staffing levels.

Although the majority of Bay Transit’s operators only earn the $11 statewide minimum wage, those with a commercial driver’s license (CDL) now earn $16.50, the living wage for the area. New $500 referral and $200 annual safety bonuses have also proven popular.

However, a survey of the system’s 74 front-line workers found the biggest issue for bus operators wasn’t wages but working conditions.

“Being a rural system where 75% of our drivers are part-timers in a non-unionized workforce, previously they had not received benefits,” explained Mike Norvell, Bay Transit’s manager of marketing and public relations. This May, Bay Transit began offering paid days off for discipline-free years of service. The five-tier benefit ranged from one day off per year for operators who had worked for the nonprofit for one to three years to five days off for people who had worked 16 years or more.

Such small improvements may not sound like a seismic shift in working conditions, but for the retirees who largely comprise Bay Transit’s drivers, getting paid time off for part-time work is unheard of.

Company culture

The bus operator shortage has also reminded transit providers of the importance of better assisting and appreciating their employees.

Earning a CDL has typically been an expensive and arduous process, with months of coursework, drug tests, and multiple written and road exams. To help accelerate that process, Hampton Roads Transit worked with the City of Norfolk to create the DriveNOW training program at Tidewater Community College.

“Getting a CDL is typically something operators have to go and take care of on their own, but our program is designed to help train them to pass the test and then continue on their careers as an operator,” said Alexis Majied, HRT’s chief communications officer.

Even something as simple as nominating staff for industry awards has gone a long way at Bay Transit. This summer, two staff members won “Unsung Hero” and “Exceptional Safety” awards from the Virginia Transit Association that now hang in the nonprofit’s driver break room.

“It’s something that sounds silly, but that type of recognition goes a long way,” Norvell said.

To help its operators feel appreciated, Hampton Roads Transit started an employee recognition committee this summer and organized a picnic for all staff and a few breakfasts and lunches timed during shift changes so that operators could grab a free bite to eat.

“Companies don’t always give their employees the shout-outs they deserve,” admitted Tom Holden, the agency’s media relations specialist. “The picnic was just a time for us to come together since we hadn’t done anything social since the start of COVID. We have a plan to do something every month and keep the picnics going quarterly.”

Despite their best efforts, Hampton Roads Transit and many other providers across Virginia are still well below peak employment. The intransigence of the issue indicates a deeper need to reform American labor relations and boost the prestige of careers in public transportation, according to Van Eyken.

“It’s an opportunity to rethink how we deploy public transit in the United States and deliver a better life not just for the people riding the bus but for the operators who drive them as well,” he said.

 

by Wyatt Gordon, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Fallout over Youngkin tourism ad and more Va. headlines

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on

The state Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• The CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation said her agency used the firm that made Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s political ads to produce a tourism video featuring the governor partly due to the firm’s “familiarity” with Youngkin. Tourism officials said late Wednesday that the governor’s office had insisted on competitive bidding, even though the firm won the work in the end—VPM, Richmond Times-Dispatch

• Democratic leaders called for an investigation into the matter and said it was inappropriate for a state contract to be steered to a company that played a key role in Youngkin’s campaign. “This is government corruption at its height,” said House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• An Arlington NAACP leader was killed while vacationing in Turks and Caicos when gang members ambushed a vehicle he was riding in after a water-skiing excursion.—Washington Post


• A technology glitch in voter registration info coming from the DMV has left local election officials with a backlog of about 107,000 registrations to process.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• Two Virginia men who took in Zachary Cruz, the brother of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, are facing financial exploitation charges over the relationship.—South Florida Sun Sentinel

• A Northern Virginia woman is demanding an apology from Fairfax County Police after her car was rammed and she was handcuffed in front of her kids in an apparent case of mistaken identity.—NBC4 Washington

• Former Virginia congressman and attorney Tom Davis is defending Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder in an ongoing congressional probe, accusing the House Oversight Committee of using “innuendo” to drive Snyder out of the NFL.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• Fairfax County Democrats will pick a nominee to replace former Del. Mark Keam on Saturday.—WTOP

• Black bears in Virginia have a mange problem.—Washington Post

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Thank You to our Local Business Participants:

@AHIER

Aders Insurance Agency, Inc (State Farm)

Aire Serv Heating and Air Conditioning

Apple Dumpling Learning Center

Apple House

Auto Care Clinic

Beaver Tree Services

Blake and Co. Hair Spa

Blue Ridge Arts Council

Blue Ridge Education

BNI Shenandoah Valley

C&C's Ice Cream Shop

Christine Binnix - McEnearney Associates

Code Ninjas Front Royal

Cool Techs Heating and Air

Down Home Comfort Bakery

Downtown Market

Dusty's Country Store

Edward Jones-Bret Hrbek

Explore Art & Clay

Family Preservation Services

First Baptist Church

Front Royal Women's Resource Center

Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce

G&M Auto Sales Inc

Garcia & Gavino Family Bakery

Gourmet Delights Gifts & Framing

Green to Ground Electrical

Groups Recover Together

House of Hope

I Want Candy

I'm Just Me Movement

Jen Avery, REALTOR & Jenspiration, LLC

Key Move Properties, LLC

KW Solutions

Legal Services Plans of Northern Shenendoah

Main Street Travel

Makeover Marketing Systems

Marlow Automotive Group

Mary Carnahan Graphic Design

Merchants on Main Street

Mountain Trails

National Media Services

No Doubt Accounting

Northwestern Community Services Board

Ole Timers Antiques

Penny Lane Hair Co.

Philip Vaught Real Estate Management

Phoenix Project

Reaching Out Now

Rotary Club of Warren County

Royal Blends Nutrition

Royal Cinemas

Royal Examiner

Royal Family Bowling Center

Royal Oak Bookshop

Royal Oak Computers

Royal Oak Bookshop

Royal Spice

Ruby Yoga

Salvation Army

Samuels Public Library

SaVida Health

Skyline Insurance

St. Luke Community Clinic

Studio Verde

The Institute for Association & Nonprofit Research

The Studio-A Place for Learning

The Valley Today - The River 95.3

The Vine and Leaf

Valley Chorale

Vetbuilder.com

Warren Charge (Bennett's Chapel, Limeton, Asbury)

Warren Coalition

Warren County Democratic Committee

Warren County Department of Social Services

Warrior Psychotherapy Services, PLLC

WCPS Work-Based Learning

What Matters & Beth Medved Waller, Inc Real Estate

White Picket Fence

Woodward House on Manor Grade

King Cartoons

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Car Wash Fundraiser - Breast Cancer Awareness @ White Horse Auto Wash
The White Horse Auto Wash in Front Royal is holding an event this weekend in honor of survivor, Alexandra Alls Barton. The family has asked that all proceeds go to The Rapunzel Project, which makes[...]
Oct
8
Sat
8:00 am Car Wash Fundraiser – Breast Can... @ White Horse Auto Wash
Car Wash Fundraiser – Breast Can... @ White Horse Auto Wash
Oct 8 @ 8:00 am – 6:00 pm
Car Wash Fundraiser - Breast Cancer Awareness @ White Horse Auto Wash
The White Horse Auto Wash in Front Royal is holding an event this weekend in honor of survivor, Alexandra Alls Barton. The family has asked that all proceeds go to The Rapunzel Project, which makes[...]
11:00 am Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Oct 8 @ 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. Come back to the family farm at Sky Meadows. Explore the park’s sustainable farming practices, visit the barred plymouth rock hens, learn about our cattle operation in partnership with the Department of Corrections’[...]
11:00 am The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
Oct 8 @ 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. The forge is fired up and the blacksmiths are hard at work in the Historic Area. Members of the Blacksmith Guild of the Potomac have set up shop and are ready to show[...]
Oct
9
Sun
8:00 am Car Wash Fundraiser – Breast Can... @ White Horse Auto Wash
Car Wash Fundraiser – Breast Can... @ White Horse Auto Wash
Oct 9 @ 8:00 am – 6:00 pm
Car Wash Fundraiser - Breast Cancer Awareness @ White Horse Auto Wash
The White Horse Auto Wash in Front Royal is holding an event this weekend in honor of survivor, Alexandra Alls Barton. The family has asked that all proceeds go to The Rapunzel Project, which makes[...]
10:30 am Bethel Life Revival 2022 @ Bethel Assembly of God
Bethel Life Revival 2022 @ Bethel Assembly of God
Oct 9 @ 10:30 am – 12:00 pm
Bethel Life Revival 2022 @ Bethel Assembly of God
Please join us on October 9th at 10:30am and October 10th-12th at 6:30pm nightly for a special series of services with Johan Bruwer. Johan is from Bloemfontein, South Africa, and will deliver a very inspiring[...]
11:00 am Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Oct 9 @ 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. Come back to the family farm at Sky Meadows. Explore the park’s sustainable farming practices, visit the barred plymouth rock hens, learn about our cattle operation in partnership with the Department of Corrections’[...]
11:00 am The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
Oct 9 @ 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. The forge is fired up and the blacksmiths are hard at work in the Historic Area. Members of the Blacksmith Guild of the Potomac have set up shop and are ready to show[...]
Oct
10
Mon
11:00 am Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Oct 10 @ 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
Fall Farm Days: Life on the Farm @ Sky Meadows State Park
Historic Area. Come back to the family farm at Sky Meadows. Explore the park’s sustainable farming practices, visit the barred plymouth rock hens, learn about our cattle operation in partnership with the Department of Corrections’[...]
6:30 pm Bethel Life Revival 2022 @ Bethel Assembly of God
Bethel Life Revival 2022 @ Bethel Assembly of God
Oct 10 @ 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Bethel Life Revival 2022 @ Bethel Assembly of God
Please join us on October 9th at 10:30am and October 10th-12th at 6:30pm nightly for a special series of services with Johan Bruwer. Johan is from Bloemfontein, South Africa, and will deliver a very inspiring[...]