Beach School Board’s Meeting Was Legal. But It Wasn’t Right.

by Kerry Dougherty

Good news for elected officials who find the public’s presence at their meetings a pesky distraction, who give half-hearted, last-minute notice of meetings and then lock the doors to the building where the meeting is being held.

It’s all legal!

Yep, apparently Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act law has broad exemptions for what are considered “special meetings,” so the June 1 shenanigans of the Virginia Beach School Board members — who did all of the above — did not run afoul of the open meeting statutes, according to a judge’s ruling yesterday.

Neither did the fact that they were obviously trying to confuse the public by postponing and then cancelling meeting dates, which resulted in the happy accident of thwarting a scheduled rally protesting Critical Race Theory in Beach schools.

The board violated the spirit of FOIA, but judges are bound to follow the letter of the law and, so, the School Board got away with its closed-but-open-meeting and their game of whack-a-dates.

Board member Vicky Manning –who refused to attend the meeting that she believed to be illegal — and her attorney filed a Writ of Mandamus with the courts last week, charging that the School Board’s June 1 meeting violated FOIA. General District Court Judge Afshin Farashahi issued a ruling yesterday, in favor of the School Board but with a very interesting caveat:

The Court is not determining whether the location of the notice was the best location available, whether the School Board’s website is user-friendly when it comes to finding information on special meetings, or whether the school board is using best practices to inform the public of the School Board’s business. The Court simply rules that the School Board did not violate FOIA as alleged by the petitioner.

The behavior of the board may have been legal, but that doesn’t make it right.

Elected officials ought to go way beyond the minimum standards set out in Virginia’s so-called “sunshine laws.” They should not only allow the public to watch them in action — both on cable TV and in person — but encourage the public to take part by posting prominent notices well in advance of meetings.

Even special ones.

Cancelling public meetings at the last minute should not happen.

As unpleasant as it may be to have to look at the unwashed and the unhappy members of the public, that’s the job of elected officials. If school board members find the public distasteful, they should find another line of work.

Oh, and then there was this, in a footnote in the judge’s ruling:

The board’s lawyer requested the Court take judicial notice of the May 31, 2019 events in Building 2 of the Virginia Beach Municipal Center to infer that that was the reason for the School Administration building to be locked…

Absolutely disgusting.

This Board actually used the mass shooting — more than two years ago, in a different building, by a maniac who is now dead — as cover for why they continue to shut ordinary decent people out of their “public” meetings.

Hire security guards. Do what you need to do. Open the doggone doors.

This column is republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed & Unedited.