After the Times-Virginian reported that the county school board may have violated FOIA by holding a meeting without properly notifying the public, as required by FOIA, and speculating that the meeting led to the ouster of a high school principal, school superintendent Aldridge Boone went on the offensive. Boone not only argued that the board gave notice "reasonable under the circumstance," FOIA-speak for special-meeting notice, but questioned whether the public relied on the paper at all for information. Two weeks later, Boone wrote a letter to Times-Virginian editor Marvin Hamlett saying, "Due to your propensity to continually and purposefully misquote us and take our comments out of context, we respectfully decline to do telephone or on-site interviews with the Times-Virginian in the future. We will certainly respond to any questions you or other members of your staff pose to us on school related matters, but only in written form." In an editorial, Hamlett defended his paper’s coverage of the board and lamented that it was the school’s teachers and students that would be hurt the most by the policy: "The School Board often praises [their] accomplishments during their public meetings, and the Times-Virginian has always been there to clarify the data and interview School Administration officials. Now, the citizens may have to wait before receiving quotes and clarification for a story."
When Anne Congdon, a King George County School Board member and a Journal Press reporter, wrote about the consequences of a recent town drug bust, Colonial Beach Mayor Frederick C. Rummage asked the paper to take Congdon off her city beat. Then, after Congdon spent a day in city offices going over historical minutes (researching the origins of a local boat tax), Rummage quizzed Congdon about her story, then told her she was no longer allowed to inspect the minutes, despite the fact that FOIA specifically says that public records "shall be open to inspection and copying." According to the Journal Press, the mayor later explained that staff complained of Congdon’s presence and that there was no reason for a reporter to spend that much time doing research. Rummage ran on a campaign platform of transparency and openness in government.
Left hand. Meet right hand. According to Emily Battle of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, the city council admitted to violating the Freedom of Information Act when it went into closed session at its mid-August meeting. The council cited the FOIA exemption allowing closed meetings for discussion of prospective businesses "where no previous announcement has been made." The problem was that there had been a previous announcement about one of the companies being discussed. The Free Lance-Star published an article about the announcement shortly after the Planning Commission approved the company’s plans. Luckily City Manager Phillip Rodenberg acknowledged the error and vowed to improve communications among city departments.
Where to start? Last year, three sitting members of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors and two newly elected (but not sworn in) members met in groups of two to discuss a plan to remove the county manager and replace him with a friend of the board’s chair: Teresa Altemus. The commonwealth attorney concluded the supervisors played "fast and loose" with FOIA’s open meetings provisions and convened a grand jury, which returned indictments against four of the supervisors in July. A special prosecutor dismissed the charges in November. Meanwhile, Altemus and her lawyers successfully recouped thousands of dollars from the State Police because the law enforcement agency wrongfully withheld documents related to the grand jury proceeding. And Altemus signed a secret settlement with the school district for its decision not to compensate her for all the times she took off to conduct county business. And recall petitions against the supervisors were dismissed for technical violations. Phew! I’m exhausted.
When the Norfolk City Council wanted to talk about indictments recently handed down against three city police officers, they closed the meeting to the public, citing the personnel exemption to the Freedom of Information Act, and met for more than an hour. Citing two Attorney General opinions from 1998 and 2000, the AG’s communications director said that the closed meeting might have violated FOIA. The personnel exemption only applies to discussions of personnel over whom the council has no control. The city’s attorney told the Virginian-Pilot that he disagreed with the opinion, which is non-binding. Alan Gernhardt at the state Freedom of Information Advisory Council asked, "Why is the City Council looking into this? Why isn’t the police chief taking care of it?"
The Roanoke Times and the City of Radford are in court, arguing over a FOIA request for FOIA requests. Reporter Tim Thornton asked the city for copies of all Freedom of Information Act requests submitted to the city over a three-month period. Thornton received most of the documents intact, but two requests were returned to him heavily redacted. The redacted requests were filed by the city’s spokesperson and council clerk, seeking records on an internal investigation into a harassment complaint. Radford claimed the records could be redacted under FOIA’s exemption for personnel records. The Roanoke Times’ lawyer, Stan Barnhill, argued at a November hearing that FOIA requests are not personnel records and no part of them can be withheld. City attorney Jim Guynn countered that such an interpretation would allow anyone to disclose otherwise-confidential information by putting it into a FOIA request. Circuit Court Judge Joey Showalter told both sides to submit briefs in December for another hearing to be set later.
Forty-one of the nation’s attorneys general signed a letter in July urging the Senate to hold a vote on the Free Flow of Information bill that has been stalled there for months. The bill would shield reporters, including some paid bloggers, from having to turn over their confidential sources in most circumstances. Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell was not among the bipartisan group of 41, despite a plea from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the National Newspaper Association, and despite a strong endorsement from the Republican AG from Texas, Greg Abbott. As of press time, the Senate still had not voted on the measure.
Roanoke Sheriff Octavia Johnson found herself on the defendant’s end of a court case in September when The Roanoke Times and WSLS-TV sued the sheriff’s office over its policy on releasing (or not releasing) mug shots. The sheriff has denied requests for mug shots on the ground that she does not release the photos of arrestees who are free on bond, i.e., not in jail custody. The Association of Chiefs of Police specifically states in its FOIA handbook that mug shots should be released unless they would jeopardize an investigation (and even if initially withheld, they should be released when the jeopardy passes). The Attorney General has said that a mug shot -- as identifying information about an arrestee -- should be released. And the media outlets add that Sheriff Johnson’s policy allows wealthier defendants who can afford bail to remain anonymous. The Virginia Coalition for Open Government sent a letter to Johnson urging her to rescind the policy.
When it comes to issuing press releases, local governments are no different from most of us: they are usually quick to spread around feel-good missives touting their achievements. Not so in Suffolk. The city refused to add to its e-mail distribution list the e-mail addresses of local bloggers who’ve been critical of some city actions. As the Virginian-Pilot correctly noted, it costs the city nothing to add new addresses to the distribution list, and it looks terrible. None of that matters, though, the Pilot wrote. "What matters is that citizens have asked for copies of some of the city’s most public documents and have been refused a courtesy for no sufficient reason. . . . Restricting access to public information, simply because it can, argues persuasively that the current administration at City Hall cares more about its own interests than the public’s."
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