Strong words on FOIA violation

We’re all winners and losers with Abingdon’s recent FOIA ruling

Bristol Herald Courier editorial, August 20, 2017
http://www.heraldcourier.com/opinion/we-re-all-winners-and-losers-with-abingdon-s-recent/article_b95d9fb8-8c74-5bf2-86fe-aacebc81e57e.html

 

Sometimes, even when something works in your favor, everyone still loses. That’s certainly the case with Abingdon Town Council’s recent FOIA violation.

On Tuesday, Abingdon Town Council, three council members and the town attorney were found in violation of the Freedom of Information Act. A letter sent by town attorney Deborah Icenhour on behalf of the three council members — Mayor Cathy Lowe, Vice Mayor Rick Humphreys and Councilman Bob Howard — to a circuit court judge requesting “aide and guidance” on another Town Council member, Cindy Patterson, failed to satisfy open meetings law. The decision to draft the letter didn’t emerge from a public meeting, hence excluding public comment, and even excluded both Patterson and another Town Council member, Wayne Craig.

Like many readers, we’re pleased with the ruling — it’s a clear win for transparency. It’s no matter that the individuals were not given fines; the symbolism of a disinterested party’s decision does enough to validate the ethical oversight that the three Town Council members continue to deny.

Moreover, the decision more than suffices to set a precedent for Town Council moving forward. With an example of what not to do, Town Council members can collectively and openly make informed, balanced decisions and hopefully work toward dissipating the tension that’s brewed among them over the past year.

Now, like the Abingdon resident who filed the suit, we citizens should continue to hold Town Council accountable. Let’s advocate for harsher punishment if Town Council violates FOIA laws again — including civil penalties.

Let’s reinforce the gravity of transparency with a citizen-composed board dedicated to examining FOIA and open meetings compliance — first at a local level and, if successful, at a state level. Though it’s unfortunate our local government needed to be shown why secrecy and selective disclosure can be dishonest and illegal, it’s a lesson on record reliable enough to reiterate the dangers and consequences to elected officials.

So it seems justice has been served. Right?

Although we’re in an apt position to close this chapter and focus on both prevention and communication, there’s a lingering feeling of apprehension with this. Why did it take a court hearing to declare the obvious? Why was it impossible for the Town Council members in question to admit a possible misstep with the letter, regardless of the occurrence of any preceding meeting? Would Town Council members have publicly disclosed the letter’s existence if the circuit court judge hadn’t directed his response to Patterson, which exposed it instead?

That Lowe, Humphreys and Howard denied wrongdoing, regardless of the intent, displays a concerning disconnect between those actions and their impressions, an absence of conscience that should have compelled them to say something to preclude needless litigation. Instead, we only have two words for this: For shame.

Shame on Town Council for forcing citizens to resort to a court to connect the dots for them between, essentially, three points. If anything, it doesn’t help their image to remain steadfast to their guns; it makes them look worse.

Shame on Town Council for failing to repair the corroded trust from a pattern of blatantly disregarding public opinion. Flaring skepticism with Town Council’s capability is boiling over, and this is a lost opportunity to confront that with humility and dignity.

Shame on Town Council for opposing transparency. Open government is a mutually beneficial tool, and taking Town Council’s history of clashing with citizens and striking down public commentary at meetings, choosing transparency would have demonstrated a turning point for them. And that transparency applies internally to Town Council itself, too.

And shame on Town Council for inadvertently assuring that we all lost here: Despite the ruling, the town now has to pay all court and attorney-related fees. So, not only have we wasted time, now we’ve wasted taxpayer money, too.

There’s got to be more initiative from Town Council to ensure that, fundamentally, applicable laws are followed, truth is dispersed and representation is full. More needs to be done to negate extra steps like this and, ultimately, to reinforce their qualifications to act in a leadership role — a trait that’s becoming more and more suspect.

Council members claim the letter intended to seek guidance — and although it’s likely not what they had in mind, they certainly got it. For everyone involved, let’s hope they follow it.Sometimes an editorial comes along that should make citizens and government prick up their ears. This is one of those.

 

 

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p> <br> <h2> <h3> <h4>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.