Fredericksburg City Beat

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Pamela Gould reports on City Hall. You can reach her at 540-735-1972 or Robyn Sidersky reports on city schools. You can reach her at 540-374-5413 or

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Courts work session broke open meetings law

As members of the public arrived at last night’s work session on building new courts in Fredericksburg, they were told that no cell phones, cameras, laptops or recording devices of any kind were allowed in the courtroom. A Free Lance-Star photographer who attempted to photograph the meeting was told he could not bring his camera into the meeting.

City staff sent City Council members an e-mail last week warning them that no electronic items, including “cell phones, laptop computers and cameras,” would be allowed at the meeting. No similar warning was included in the public notice of the meeting.

This runs afoul of a recent amendment to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that was crafted in response to a situation very similar to this.

HB1028, approved during last year’s General Assembly session, added the following language to the law (the portion underlined is what was added):

H. Any person may photograph, film, record or otherwise reproduce any portion of a meeting required to be open. The public body conducting the meeting may adopt rules governing the placement and use of equipment necessary for broadcasting, photographing, filming or recording a meeting to prevent interference with the proceedings, but shall not prohibit or otherwise prevent any person from photographing, filming, recording or otherwise reproducing any portion of a meeting required to be open. No public body shall conduct a meeting required to be open in any building or facility where such recording devices are prohibited.

The Northern Neck’s Del. Albert Pollard (D) and Sen. Richard Stuart (R) co-sponsored this bill after a similar situation came up in Westmoreland County.(I have not been able to find the Web version of this story, so I will send you here, where it was partially reproduced and discussed in a FredTalk forum.)

I have calls out to mayor and the city attorney, and I sent questions to Judge Gordon Willis earlier today.

I just received Willis’ response, through his secretary.

He said the court was asked to meet with the council members about plans for the new courthouse and that the court suggested the courthouse as a venue and the council members agreed. He said sheriff’s deputies were simply following the policies and procedures of the court and there was no intent to disregard the requirements of the open meetings law.

Read more about this in tomorrow’s edition of The Free Lance-Star.

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  • TPKeller

    This was an excellent catch, and you are absolutely right.

    “The court” should have known better.

  • Larry the G

    The judge did not know the law? Were minutes of the meeting taken and made available?

  • Emily Battle

    Larry – Yes, in fact the clerk of council received prior permission from the judge to bring her recorder into the meeting, and that recording is a public document. But the point is that private citizens have the right to make their own recording, video, audio, photograph or just take notes on their laptop. Although the rules of the court prohibit these devices, last night’s meeting was a City Council meeting, not a court proceeding. When this issue arose in Westmoreland County, the Board of Supervisors moved its meetings out of the courthouse to avoid this conflict. City Council meetings aren’t regularly held in the courthouse, so this is not likely to become a regular problem, but it’s never a bad time for all of us to review FOIA. I should also point out that my editor, Dick Hammerstrom, our resident FOI expert, is really responsible for making this catch.

  • Sillyyouare1957

    Where was the City Attorney when this illegal act was taking place????? It is a shame the those in elected office fail to know the laws under which they are mandated to operate. It seems to me that someone was providing poor legal advise or that no one really care and got CAUGHT!!!

  • George

    In Council’s defense, I have read the FOIA and open meeting laws and I would have made the assumption that the court regulations somehow superseded these requirements.

    To be honest, now that I think of it, I don’t know that I have added the new HB1028 language to my meeting notebook… must go do that now!

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  • TPKeller

    George, the problem was that there were some locations that were using this to circumvent FOIA. Naughty, naughty!

  • Stephanie

    Here’s the web link for the Westmoreland story:

  • George

    Your right TPK – After reading Emily’s story, I remembered the Westmoreland issue with this. Duh! But, before I read it, I wouldn’t have made the connection – this stuff isn’t as obvious to public officials as you might think and the officials tend to rely on staff knowing if they are on the sunny side of the law (pun intended).

  • http://ClarificationIITheSequal Matthew Kelly

    Becoming too dependent on staff is not necessarily a good thing.

  • Hamilton

    intimidating and ironic

  • HorseFeather

    Is this really a big deal? C’mon people get a life!