Fairfax County Public Schools and area parents are awaiting a decision by Circuit Judge Leslie Alden in a case that accuses the FCPS of violating FOIA in its deliberations over whether to close a district elementary school.
Jill Hill claims that board members exchanged so many emails about the closure in such a short period of time prior to the meeting that it amounted to an illegal closed meeting.
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the exchange of email over several days -- with four hours being the shortest time span between responses -- was not a meeting because there was no "simultaneity." The high court noted, however, that simultaneity may be present when email is used in a chat room or instant messaging, but not when it is used as the "functional equivalent of letter communication by ordinary mail, courier, or facsimile transmission."
In a post-trial brief, Hill claimed that board members sent "hundreds of e-mails over a few days with intervals as short as 2-4 minutes."
But the board's attorney said, "Where's the simultaneous meeting? You won't see it here." He asked the court to imagine what life would be like if members of public bodies couldn't talk to each other before a meeting.
Hill's lawyers also argued that the emails exchanged prior to the board's meeting on the school closure were more like a conversation, not a letter, and thus more like a meeting. Lawyers for the school responded that board members are allowed to have one-on-one conversations.
Additionally, Hill's case calls into question an email one board member, who was not present at the meeting, sent to the other board members while they were in closed session. FOIA prohibits participation in local meetings via electronic means unless certain conditions apply or unless certain procedures have been followed.
Records Hill received from making FOIA requests also showed at least five emails were exchanged among board members during a public meeting asking each other how they planned to vote.
In a Washington Post article, FCPS board members said FOIA requests from concerned parents were crippling the business of the school district. One member even said, "The fact that any of my emails can be read by anyone in the country who makes a FOIA request -- that frankly bothers me."