GLOUCESTER - The Gloucester Board of Supervisors played "fast and loose" with the state’s FOI laws, county Commonwealth Attorney Robert D. Hicks said in a February report on the board’s cloak-and-dagger firing of the county manager and immediate hiring of the board chair’s friend, Lacy Smith, as a replacement. Though Hicks said there wasn’t a "clear-cut and substantial enough violation to make prosecution worthwhile," A grand jury has nonetheless convened to further look into the mess that started when board chair Teresa Altemus and some current and some newly elected (but not sworn in) officers met in a private home to discuss the city manager’s job. The manager had already resigned, but still had another several weeks on the job. Other board members -- and the public -- were kept in the dark about what they talked about until the personnel change came up at a late-night/early-morning public meeting. The city manager, and the city attorney, were out; Smith was in. Only one of the supervisors in on the plan would answer Hicks’ questions during his investigation. Altemus and Supervisor Michelle Ressler have also refused to answer constituent questions in the presence of a Daily Press reporter.
HALIFAX COUNTY - Saying some of their members were media shy and uncomfortable talking in public, members of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors used a series of daisy-chain meetings to make cuts to the county budget. FOIA does not prohibit the one-on-one contact between supervisors. Unfortunately, some in government take it too far, using a series of one-on-one phone calls or e-mails to effectively discuss public business out of the public eye. Luckily, the e-mails the supervisors used in this case were turned over the Gazette Virginian under the Freedom of Information Act, where Halifax residents could track who proposed what changes and how certain cuts were made while others were not.
LEESBURG - Council members, who serve as liaisons between the Leesburg Town Council and the town’s 12 citizen committees and commissions, missed as much as 83 percent of their meetings in 2007, according to a report by the Loudoun Times-Mirror. Most council members agreed that the liaison system was not working anymore, and that the council was zipping through liaison reports at the end of lengthy council meetings. It was suggested that the council members use meeting minutes to update themselves on some of the issues the liaisons would have reported on, but the town’s minutes-approval process was backlogged, too. Eliminating the liaison position would mean amending the town code, Mayor Kristen Umstattd said. She suggested the council open the discussion up to the public for comment and meet with commission/committee members before making any change.
LOUDOUN COUNTY - Last year, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors members found themselves in hot water when the Washington Post used copies of e-mail to suggest that certain supervisors’ decisions were being guided by a former board chairman now working in real estate. The county did the right thing and suggested resurrecting the county position of inspector general. They forgot one thing, though: to provide any funding for the position. The April 1 budget did not include any of the estimated $375,000 to fund a three-person inspector general’s office, plus two additional auditors. "There has been too much self-monitoring," board member Jim Clem told the Loudoun Times. "[An inspector general] is something they desperately need, something they need more than ever."
RICHMOND - Tucked away at the end of a letter on general matters written by Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court Leroy Hassell to Virginia State Bar President Howard Martin was this request: "The Justices have decided that the Virginia State Bar should not post any information about disciplinary complaints filed against lawyers on the Virginia State Bar’s website until a decision has been made adverse to the lawyer and the time for filing an appeal from that decision to the Supreme Court has expired." The letter asked that the policy be implemented immediately. Martin quickly wrote back to say that such an action was inconsistent with changes made in 2001 to make the bar’s disciplinary process more transparent. Martin noted that disciplinary actions are docketed and posted on the bar’s Web site, which has been popular with the press and public. "[T]he failure to publicize [all] such information could lead to the anomalous result of an attorney being suspended for a year, appealing his sanction, and by the time the appeal is resolved and the sanction affirmed, the time of suspension would have been served."
WARREN COUNTY - When visitors entered the clerk’s office at the Warren County Courthouse, they were greeted by three large red signs reading, "Cameras or scanners are not allowed for reproducing any documents or records in the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office." When asked in an e-mail about the limitation, Clerk Jennifer Sims said she posted the signs after someone recently used a scanner to scan certain documents. She said she contacted others who said that posting signs was the norm. Luckily, after consulting with a circuit court judge and Paul DeLosh, director of the Judicial Services Department at the Virginia Supreme Court, Sims realized that as long as inhouse equipment was not used and there was no interference with office business or reasonable public use, then scanners and such could be used at no charge. Sims added, however, that she "strongly disagree[d]," and asked, "What is to prevent that citizen selling the copied information for illegal purposes?" No word yet on why copies made by the clerk and sold for a fee could not also be sold for illegal purposes.
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