4 officials and an attorney

FOI questions on 'meeting' get answer by attorney

by JENAY TATE • Editor & Publisher
Coalfield Progress

A local man's Freedom of Information Act request regarding a widely rumored meeting of anti-consolidation county school board members has generated at least part of the information Bob Nixon sought.

Board members Betty Cornett, Mark Hutchinson, Rocky Cantrell and Jess Powers met together the night of May 2 when they boycotted a regular school board meeting, but the dinner gathering was among clients and attorney Frank Kilgore to discuss pending litigation he filed that day on their behalf, Kilgore verified Thursday.

Also joining the group that night at the Holiday Inn in Norton, Kilgore said, was county supervisor J.H. Rivers, a potential witness in the trial. The four school board members sued Superintendent Jeff Perry and Chairman Ted Thompson, claiming the two have overstepped the bounds of their power while trying to move forward a high school consolidation proposal.

"The defendants have the same rights to meet with their counsel as well," Kilgore wrote in an e-mail, adding that "we sure were not hiding."

Kilgore said he will be responding "to Nixon's erroneous understanding of FOIA."

On Monday, Nixon asked for the opinion of the state's Freedom of Information Advisory Council on the legality of a reported dinner meeting among three county school board members on the night they didn't appear for a regularly scheduled board meeting.

In subsequent FOI letters, Nixon asks Cornett, Cantrell and Powers to identify what they talked about and who else was in attendance.

In a Thursday phone interview, Nixon acknowledged that he did not witness the gathering of board members. Part of the reason for the request, he said, is to get verification of an incident that has been widely rumored but not substantiated.

Nixon has spoken before at county supervisors meetings and said Thursday his request was not driven by issues of school consolidation or redistricting but the manner in which the debates are being handled by elected county officials.

In a May 23 letter to the FOIA Council, Nixon asks:

- Does their meeting constitute a violation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act since there was no public notice?

- What is the citizen's civil remedy to obtain information on the three-member school board discussions?

- What is the civil remedy to prohibit further three-member assemblages without public notice and an adoption of a formal agenda?

In separate letters of the same date to Cornett, Cantrell and Powers, Nixon asks that each "provide a detailed narrative of the proceedings and a list of others who may have participated in the discussion of public business at a private restaurant table."

In the FOI request to board members, Nixon says the "three-member assemblage constitutes a meeting" under the provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

In his letter to FOI counsel Alan Gernhardt, Nixon references "the ongoing confused state of affairs relating to three elected members of the Wise County School Board."

Nixon writes: "It appears obvious that there would have been discussed public business at the three-member assemblage, especially since an elected member of the Wise County Board of Supervisors joined them for the informal session away from the regular called session of the school board. To deny the regular called meeting of the school board a quorum while meeting at a private restaurant would give the appearance of impropriety or some type of nefarious conduct."

In his letter to board members, Nixon advised that he reserves the right to bring court action for FOI violations "if there is a failure to make complete and prompt disclosure." He concludes: "Please govern yourself accordingly."

Earlier this month, board members Powers, Cornett, Cantrell and Mark Hutchinson made a formal FOI request to the school system for, among other things, any tapes, transcripts, recordings or footage of them, individually or as a group, including at "closed meetings, casual meetings or in public settings."

Nixon, 74 and a native of Coeburn, is a retired heavy equipment salesman. He said he has not been politically active but "have always been an avid voter."

What spurred him to action "is the low-life, low-down, unethical tactics of some of the people," Nixon said. "That's what I attacked."

Nixon said he has never seen local politics reach such a low point. "When I see people pulling these power plays, when they won't go to a school board meeting," he said, voice trailing. When elected officials are using their positions for public gain and personal ego, he said, "I intend to stand against them and give them a hard time."

Nixon said he has received compliments for taking a stand and facing people. "If more people would have come forth, we'd have less of a problem," he said.