FORT DEFIANCE - Thomas Scott Cline of Fort Defiance was the third-place winner in a nationwide contest to recognize "Local Heroes" of open government. Cline, nominated by the Waynesboro News Virginian, successfully sued the county board of equalization for meetings violations. The ruling prompted the county to overhaul its meeting procedures and host FOIA-training sessions for its employees.
FREDERICKSBURG - City Council suffered a "senior moment" when it held a work session in January at the circuit courthouse. The courthouse does not allow the public to bring in cell phones, cameras, laptops or recording devices. The problem is that FOIA explicitly allows for the recording of meetings, and just to drive that point home, FOIA was amended in 2010 to say specifically that public bodies can't meet in locations that prohibit recording. Board members later apologized, saying they hadn't realized the ban on all electronic devices posed a conflict with state law.
HALIFAX - Some observers in Halifax noticed several members of the county school board having lunch at a local Italian restaurant. Those observers also saw the board chair hand out packets containing comments he would present at the meeting to be held after the lunch. When asked about the lunch, which was not announced to the public, the chair insisted public business was not discussed. That explanation may have been easier to swallow if, in email comments to a fellow board member who has been critical of certain board decisions the chair hadn't said, "Had you been at the lunchen [sic] before hand you would have had an opportunity to express your thoughts, but as we both know you failed to show up for what ever reasons."
HOPEWELL - The Hopewell sheriff not only refused to release records in response to FOIA requests in December and January, but he also may have intentionally deleted the requested records after receiving the requests. That's the allegation made in a FOIA petition brought in Hopewell General District Court by a local citizen in late March. A hearing on the case is set for May 31.
RICHMOND - In response to a FOIA request filed by a member of the Wingnut Collective, Karen Harrison of the Richmond Police Department handed over various policy manuals. Some of the manuals could possibly have been kept confidential under one of FOIA's many exemptions, but Harrison released them all because FOIA exemptions are not mandatory. The Collective posted the records on its website. Imagine the surprise of both Harrison and the Collective's Mo Karn when they were both sued by the RPD. The police said it wanted Karn to give the records back to the department, and said Harrison had exceeded her authority in releasing the records in the first place. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the RPD soon dropped its suit. Police Chief Bryan T. Norwood said it was "the prudent thing to do."
RICHMOND - A state judge in February ruled that a state law restricting the release of information about Virginians' personal voting histories is unconstitutional. Shortly before the 2009 election, a group called the Know Campaign abandoned plans to mail out flyers to voters that detailed their voting histories. The group did not disclose where it got the data. State law prohibits disclosure of voting information to anyone except elected officials, candidates and party chairs. The court ordered the State Board of Elections to release the data to the Know Campaign upon request. The ruling does not apply to other groups, but the Know Campaign's attorney said it probably opens the door for similar nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations to get the data.
WESTMORELAND - A judge in Westmoreland County ordered the county supervisors and members of the Industrial Development Authority to pay $14,927 in attorneys' fees to a group of area citizens who successfully sued over an improperly closed meeting about a security-training development. The judge ruled in December that the county did not sufficiently state the reason for closing the meeting. The judge refused to impose civil penalties for the error, saying it was done "willfully," but not "knowingly."
VIRGINIA - As part of the annual Sunshine Week initiative, several Media General newspapers conducted mini-FOIA audits in their localities. Reporters sought various public records: email of governing board members; recent criminal activity reports and fire inspection reports at area schools. As the News & Advance put it, the responses were like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: you never knew what you'd get. Police in Amherst County required requesters to give their Social Security numbers. Hopewell refused to provide email on budget talks between the city manager and the city council. A Bristol police officer blocked the paper's representative from entering the building, then handed her a number for her to fax her request. Bristol Police Chief Bill Price was disappointed to hear about that. "It irritates the heck out of me," he said. "This is just something that's not even in the ballpark."