Another City Hall Fiasco in RVA

by Jon Baliles

City Hall suffered another self-inflicted artillery wound last week when within a span of four days they were sued for allegedly violating state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws, pledged a stout defense against the claims, and then announced they would be changing the way City Hall handles FOIA requests.

Translated, the city will pivot back towards the old FOIA system they replaced just last year with their new “centralized” system that has been so successful it has led to numerous violations (or just ignoring) FOIA requests, multiple media stories detailing the failures, and several lawsuits that had to be filed in order to get information that should be easily available.

Call it Meals Tax Fiasco, Part Deux.

Last week a $250,000 whistleblower lawsuit was filed against the city by the former Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer Connie Clay, who served as the city’s FOIA officer from July 2023-January 2024, and claims she was terminated for “refusing to engage in illegal and unethical activities in violation of FOIA.”

Clay told Tyler Layne at CBS6, There were many instances where I was asked to withhold information that should have been released or to sit on records that should have been released.”

She said that the city was routinely violating its FOIA obligations by not meeting legal deadlines to provide responses to citizens and journalists who were requesting information. Sometimes, city leaders would prevent the release of certain records altogether.

The City Attorney told media outlets that “the city believes the claims are baseless and intends to defend the lawsuit in court.”

And then, within a few days of that statement, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Lincoln Saunders, sent a memo to City Council: “As you are likely aware, there have been several recent issues regarding timely FOIA responses that have been reported by the local media,” the memo says. “The city of Richmond has been working to centralize our FOIA process to take the burden off individual departments whose primary focus is not FOIA.”

The changes last year were made ostensibly to institute “best practices” and have one point of contact for all requests; but when Connie Clay, the woman they hired to be that point of contact clashed with superiors about the city not properly complying with FOIA requests, they fired her. So now the city will change the FOIA policies again by going back toward the old policy, and might even hire an outside law firm to assist in responding. In other words, City Hall is going to replace the newer “best bad practice” (or is it “bad best practice?”) and return to the old FOIA system — that was replaced just last year. Talk about irony.

The old FOIA process had a FOIA officer for each department who was responsible for filling the basic FOIA’s; more complicated or sensitive FOIA’s were kicked up the ladder if more help was needed. State law required a public entity subject to FOIA to respond within five days with the information, or a cost estimate to research the request, reveal they have no such records, or they can get a seven-day extension to answer. Failure to comply can result in legal action.

Moving forward, a FOIA officer will field all requests and assign them to the contact in the appropriate department and report back with follow up on need for more information or an extension to fulfill the request. According to Saunders, the goal in now going back toward the old system is to have more oversight and speed up the process — which would intuitively lead one to believe that the “new and improved” system implemented last year was achieving or was meant to do the opposite. But I digress.

“The idea was to build this new arm of the city so that ease of use, access and transparency are at the helm,” Saunders stated in the memo. “However, this centralization process has come with several challenges, including hiring enough people with the appropriate expertise to effectively build out this new function.”

Saunders also said in the memo that the city was getting “upward” of 80 FOIA requests a week; however, Clay told The Times-Dispatch the city was receiving between 30 to 80 requests per month in the time she worked there from July 2023 to January 2024.

Clay also told CBS6: “I sounded the alarm, for several months, and no one listened, and I was silenced and then fired. It’s just such a huge disappointment that the bureaucrats in City Hall do not want to follow the law. And if I don’t say something, who will?”

So the FOIA policy will be changed (again), and that is good for the public. The old best practice will replace the new “best bad practice” (or is it bad best practice?) put in place by the Mayor and CAO that resulted in repeated FOIA violations and led to lawsuits for breach of FOIA from those seeking it to gain compliance. It is doubtful that if Clay had not filed her lawsuit and blown the whistle that this change would ever be taking place; and now, there are more sets of eyes on City Hall’s shenanigans than ever before — and they are watching.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. 

Republished with permission from RVA 5×5.