2008 FOIA award winners

Open-government group gives out awards to citizen
and government honorees

Leigh Purdum of Madison County (below, left, with VCOG executive director Jennifer Perkins) is this year’s recipient of VCOG’s Laurence E. Richardson award for individual citizen contributions to open government. The award honors the memory of a longtime Charlottesville broadcaster and VCOG founding director.

Purdum, a former sheriff’s office employee, won a landmark court decision against Madison County Sheriff Eric J. Weaver for willfully violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act, imposing a $250 fine and court fees. The decision possibly represents the first finding by a Virginia district court that a public official willfully violated FOIA.

The suit was a result of Weaver’s refusal to give the names of the citizens he appointed to an advisory board. Purdum also sought other information that Weaver refused to provide such as meeting dates, the criteria for choosing members, topics of discussion, goals and objectives and copies of meeting minutes. While the citizen’s advisory board itself is not a public body and not subject to FOIA’s open meeting requirements, any records about the board created and maintained by Weaver in his role as sheriff are open to the public, the court ruled.

Purdum’s victory resulting in a monetary fine represents a significant step forward in enforcement and compliance of FOIA. The case will set the tone that public officials must comply with open government requirements and citizen requests for public information or face real consequences.

VCOG’s media award will go to Lawrence Hammack of The Roanoke Times (below, left, with Perkins) for his series of articles exposing former Roanoke City Councilman Alfred Dowe’s double-billing for meals and travel expenses to the state and city.

The articles were a result of a FOIA request made by the Times that initially revealed Dowe’s spending of nearly $15,000 on a city-issued credit card was more than all six other council members combined and nearly half of the council’s total of over $34,000. Further investigation by Hammack revealed Dowe billed both the city and state for a series of at least five trips he made to Richmond to attend meetings of the Department of Criminal Justice Services of which he was a member. Hammack determined Dowe received reimbursements of nearly $1,400 from the state and over $1,900 from the city for the same expenses.

In reaction to these reports, Dowe resigned his position on the city council and DCJS.  In addition, Hammack’s FOIA requests and articles spurred Roanoke Mayor Nelson Harris to call for a citywide audit of the credit card program and resulted in a series of changes to how city council members use their city-issued credit cards, including an overall spending cap and greater oversight procedures.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government is a nonprofit alliance formed to promote expanded access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level. The awards will be presented at the coalition’s annual conference May 22 in Fredericksburg.

For more information on the awards or the coalition, please contact vcog@opengovva.org or 540-353-8264.