by Joe Fitzgerald

I’ve wondered since college, if not high school, what happens when a public body decides to just ignore the Freedom of Information Act. I don’t know if that’s what the Rockingham County School Board is doing right now, but if they are, the criticism might be just the cost of doing business. It’s not Hell to pay. It’s Hell to pay off before moving on to the next liberal interference in their drive to replace education professors with City Elders.

The board recently formed a panel to judge their banned books, and because people making decisions for the public should be judged themselves, the Virginia Freedom of Information Act says we should know who those people are.

Of course FOIA doesn’t mention judgment, possibly because so many public servants come up short in that category. What it does mention is that public bodies shall be public, and that the definition of public bodies, “shall not exclude any such committee, subcommittee, or entity because it has private sector or citizen members.”

Not so much, says Matt Cross’s School Board majority. They’re not revealing the names of the book-vetting committee members. The superintendent has said that in forming the committee, they looked for people who could read. That’s an extraordinarily low bar for people judging literature, perhaps akin to demanding that a referee be able to see.

When I first joined the City Council some decades back, the city paid to send the newcomers to an orientation program in Charlottesville that I always thought of as City Council Charm School. Because a journalism career had exposed me to so much of the material already, I only remember a few tidbits as being worth the price my fellow taxpayers paid. One was to always wear long socks for a TV interview, so that one’s shanks didn’t show in the long shots. I imagine those newly elected folks who regularly wore skirts or kilts already knew this.

One other thing was the nugget of wisdom from the FOIA session. I’d first been exposed to FOIA when the advisor for Dinwiddie High’s Generally Speaking newspaper explained that FOIA didn’t apply to DCHS principal Bobby Churn. So the main new thing I learned at Charm School was that the penalty for violating FOIA was technically a small fine, but in reality it was the public embarrassment of being found to have violated it.

This would be a good time to remind the reader that Matt Cross has said that Jesus Christ took away all his shame. So between that and being able to blame most things on liberals, public exposure may not be the deciding factor it could be for other elected officials.

The other thing I’ll always remember is a local seminar on FOIA where Sheriff Glenn Weatherholtz was asked what he’d do if he saw a violation, for instance three board members discussing public policy on the golf course. He said it wasn’t his job to enforce FOIA. The moderator then asked the managing editor of the Daily News-Record what he thought of that, but he had to wake him up first.

What this means is that it’s up to the citizen to enforce FOIA, to go to court for a mandamus to get a document released, such as the recent BotkinRose letter. The two hurdles here for the average citizens being that they have lives to live outside of court and have no idea what a mandamus is. The judge can order the release of a document and fine the perpetrator less than a speeding ticket. There aren’t even any points placed on the perp’s license to be a board member, which expires for Cross next year unless the county’s citizens renew it.

So getting back to the original question: what if a board decides to just ignore FOIA? What happens if the board keeps the names of a public subcommittee private? A law firm like the one Cross’s board just fired would tell them they can’t do that. And if they do it anyway? Well, they just did.

Maybe the decision not to let the public judge the literacy, competence, politics, or prejudices of the book reviewers is based on the Biblical injunction, or perhaps mandamus, to judge not yet ye be judged. It’s worth remembering that the next line says, “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” If that’s another way to say that what goes around comes around, then this would be a good time to mention again that Cross comes up for reelection next year.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. 
Republished with permission from Still Not Sleeping. 

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10 responses to “Ignoring FOIA?”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Keep taking him to court.

    1. Marty Chapman Avatar
      Marty Chapman

      A draft show cause from an attorney seems to get things moving.

  2. how_it_works Avatar

    Nothing happens to them unless someone (that would be a member of the public) wants to take them to court.

  3. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    The regime is greatly out of balance. The public entities are trained on this and have paid for lawyers to defend them. The average citizen starts from WAAAAAY behind. Then you have to figure out to file the Mandamus petition – not that hard – but likely daunting for most.
    UVA has figured out how to hide everything – just attach an affidavit from Jim Ryan saying he stablished this committee/subcommittee/task force/working group for his “deliberative privilege” and abracadabra presto! It’s working papers. 3 years of meetings by a group of 40 people or so.

    It is an outrage. And there is no meaningful penalty for jerking the requestor around. UVA (the public) would pay any penalty.

  4. Thomas Dixon Avatar
    Thomas Dixon

    I will be requesting an FOIA from OSIG and DBHDS soon. I do not expect cooperation.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Easy to fix. Fine the agency that is found to be in violation. First time 1000, second time 10,000, third time 100,000, etc…etc..

    However, as many folks know, getting them dead to rights is not that easy… the GA provides waivers left and right.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      From whose pocket is the money to pay the fine taken?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Yes, that’s an issue. How about their pay?

  6. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    My favorite day of the week is Friday when I read the Mercury’s FOIA Friday. As an ex public servant, it wasn’t mine to withhold unless the law prevented it (personnel matters).

    1. WayneS Avatar

      And here is another thumbs up, since I can’t ‘upvote’ you twice.


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