‘FOIA . . . the center of great controversy in the county of late’
Describing the Freedom of Information Act as a “by, for, and of the people kind of law,” Maria Everett, executive director of the Virginia FOIA Advisory Council, led a two-hour forum about the law last Wednesday (May 10) at the Rappahannock County courthouse.
More than 50 members of the public — including several county officials — attended the presentation.
A local group called the Friends of Liberty organized the event to help answer questions about FOIA.
“FOIA has been the center of great controversy in the county of late, and it was our desire to help lessen that controversy, and hopefully save our county needless expenses stemming from a misunderstanding of the law,” says Friends of Liberty member Mike Cioffi in a letter on this week’s op-ed page.
He was referring to several recent actions against the county’s Board of Supervisors and Board of Zoning Appeals alleging FOIA violations.
However, he said in a phone call Tuesday (May 16), the FOIA Forum was the brainchild of local innkeeper Walt Longyear, who researched the topic and found the FOIA Council.
In an entertaining and at times humorous presentation, Everett made the law accessible and easy to understand.
“FOIA affords citizens the opportunity to witness the operation of government and request records of government meetings and other actions,” she said. “It’s about the government’s being responsive to citizens. FOIA attempts to balance the right of citizens to access the actions of their government against the need for government to function properly.”
Materials she presented at the forum outlined FOIA provisions for government officials, as well as the process for citizens to request records.
Putting a request in writing is not required, she said. Citizens may request records in person, or by phone, email, or hard copy letter. However, requests “have to be reasonably specific” to help the researcher find the information or documents desired.
Most of the FOIA requirements for government revolve around how public meetings are conducted. Meetings must be open, except for some “narrowly tailored exemptions from mandatory disclosures,” said Everett. Exemptions that allow closed sessions include such things as discussions of personnel matters or contract negotiations.
Last year, a local resident represented by local lawyer David Konick, accused the county board of supervisors of violating FOIA by improperly conducting closed sessions and by discussing topics in those sessions that were not exempt.
Also last year, Konick brought action against the BZA, of which he is a member, for planning to hold a special meeting without proper advance notice to the public, a violation of FOIA.
And just this past week he formally requested of County Administrator Debbie Keyser “pursuant to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act” copies of minutes from more than 20 regular, special, and budget meetings of the board of supervisors going back to September of 2016, none of which were in the official Board of Supervisors Minute Book in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office as of last Thursday..
Cioffi and others formed The Friends of Liberty several years ago. The organization is “a group of people believing in limited constitutional government as established by our Founding Fathers,” said Cioffi by phone. “Our purpose is to do things that have a positive impact on the community,”
The group held candidate forums before September 2015 local elections; celebrated Constitution Day in a number of ways, including sponsoring presentations by constitutional scholars and holding re-enactments of Founding Fathers discussing the establishment of the country; and conducted a course at the county library about the constitution.
An unedited video of the 7 p.m. training session on Wednesday, May 11 can be found online at rappnews.com/video, or on the newspaper’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/RappNewsPlus. The meeting agenda and related documents are online at boarddocs.com/va/
Virginia Freedom of Information Act Policy
“[T]he General Assembly ensures the people of the Commonwealth ready access to public records in the custody of a public body or its officers and employees, and free entry to meetings of public bodies wherein the business of the people is being conducted. The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government. Unless a public body or its officers or employees specifically elect to exercise an exemption provided by this chapter or any other statute, every meeting shall be open to the public and all public records shall be available for inspection and copying upon request. All public records and meetings shall be presumed open, unless an exemption is properly invoked.”