Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.
FOIA FOIA and FOIA
On Nov. 7 Spotsylvania County Circuit Court Judge David Beck ordered county officials to release four e-mails that were withheld relating to a Freedom of Information Act request from School Superintendent Jerry Hill.
These e-mails need to be released to Hill unless the county government decides to appeal the decision. Supervisors did meet last month in closed session to discuss this decision. They did not come out of the closed meeting room with a public decision. Are they going to appeal?
I called Dr. Hill’s attorney, Steven Webster, and he does not have the four e-mails. Once he gets them, I plan to request them, too. I am curious what these e-mails say. I also want to review the FOIA laws to see why they were not originally disclosed.
Just recently I asked to see a zoning file. The county withheld about 17 pages of documents, including a zoning complaint, based on one of the exemptions cited in the response letter. The exemption is Section 2.2-3705.3.10, and three documents were not disclosed. This section involves complaints to zoning officials. But here’s the rub: Only names, addresses and telephone numbers of complaints can be withheld, not the entire document. After consulting with County Attorney Jacob Stroman, he agreed to allow me to view the records.
Keep in mind that the state’s FOIA laws are to be liberally construed, meaning that county officials should lean toward shining light on records, not opportunities to keep them from disclosure.
Although the county government claims victory in the Hill lawsuit, it’s important to point out that Dr. Hill started out with none of the documents. At the end of the day, he should have four additional e-mails. These are four e-mails, that if a lawsuit was never filed, would continue to be hidden from the public view. For that reason alone, Hill’s attorneys are claiming victory as well.
In Loudoun County, a very similar case was argued. In this case, the county government surely lost. But the decisions in nearly identical cases were not too similar.You can read the case here.
A summary from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government says:
General District Court Judge Dean Worcester ruled that Loudoun Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) cannot withhold e-mails she deems to be personal from a county resident. It would not be appropriate, Worcester ruled, for the court to give a public official the right to decide on his or her own discretion which documents are public and which are private. He ordered Waters to turn over copies of “all e-mail records requested, without deletion or redaction on the basis that the record is private or personal.” Waters immediately promised an appeal to Circuit Court….Modern technology, Worcester wrote, has given Waters a “virtual office” that follows her everywhere, 24/7. His ruling may infringe on the privacy of a public figure, Worcester wrote, and “that is simply a consequence of being a public official.” The General Assembly may want to create an exemption for personal or private communications, or to clarify the definition of “transacting public business,” Worcester concluded, but it hasn’t done so yet.
If you remember, Hill also was seeking an e-mail from Spotsylvania Supervisor Gary Jackson to former regional political leader Russ Moulton. Beck said FOIA states that it “should not be construed to discourage the free discussion by government officials or employees of public matters with the citizens of the commonwealth.” Therefore, he said the e-mail does not need to be released because it may discourage free discussion. But FOIA experts, namely Jennifer Perkins with VCOG, was quick to point out in an editorial that Beck’s decision is not even an exemption allowed under FOIA. You can read her letter here.
Last night, on the consent agenda, was a short resolution.You can see the resolution here.
The county has to decide by mid-December if it will appeal. The county hired outside counsel to argue this case, and would have to hire the outside counsel to appeal this case. I plan to request the bills for this case to show people how much it cost to fight it in court.
Once Hill gets the e-mails, the next question is what is he going to do with all of the stuff he got through his FOIA requests? We know Dr. Hill is exploring a civil lawsuit against unknown people in connection with the failed prosecution of him last year on an election-law violation and obstruction of justice. But will he actually file one? Who is the target? Was this defamation?
What do you all think? What do you conclude from all of this?