FOIA Friday: A ‘damning’ report on Richmond graduation shooting and Orange nondisclosures

What Virginia officials withheld or disclosed, Nov. 10–Nov. 17, 2023

By: - November 17, 2023 12:03 am

File cabinets. (Getty)

One of the less noticed features of the Virginia Way is the long-running tendency of the commonwealth’s leaders to conduct their decision-making behind closed doors. While the Virginia Freedom of Information Act presumes all government business is by default public and requires officials to justify why exceptions should be made, too many Virginia leaders in practice take the opposite stance, acting as if records are by default private and the public must prove they should be handled otherwise.

In this feature, we aim to highlight the frequency with which officials around Virginia are resisting public access to records on issues large and small — and note instances when the release of information under FOIA gave the public insight into how government bodies are operating. 

Richmond Public Schools refuses to release ‘damning’ third-party review of graduation shooting 

Richmond Public Schools refused to release a third-party report on a mass shooting that occurred outside of a high school graduation ceremony in downtown Richmond June 6, citing a FOIA exemption that allows the withholding of records protected by attorney-client privilege. 

One member of the Richmond School Board told WTVR, which requested a copy of the report, that “I don’t fully have words to describe how damning a report this is. My jaw hit the floor. I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t know how bad.” Another board member said that “at best, there is some negligence that needs to be addressed. At worst, we were misled.” 

The June 6 shooting left two dead, five others shot and at least a dozen others injured. Police said in a court filing that the shooting was related to an “ongoing feud” involving one of the deceased victims, graduate Shawn Jackson, who had been enrolled in the district’s “homebound” virtual learning program. According to WTVR, district policy prohibited homebound students from participating in school-sponsored activities; however, an internal investigation by Richmond Public Schools found a school faculty member had allowed Jackson to take part in the graduation ceremony. 

After several School Board members raised concerns about conflicting information related to the shooting, the body voted to commission a third-party investigation, which was completed by law firm Sands Anderson at a cost of $25,000. 

Board members told WTVR they were split on the question of whether the report should be released publicly. 

Judge dismisses FOIA claims against Chesapeake Council 

A judge dismissed claims by a former Chesapeake Planning Commission member that the city and council member Debbie Ritter had violated the Freedom of Information Act by not turning over two documents Ritter had circulated during a closed City Council session this January.

During a prior case against Ritter, the councilwoman said she had shared the documents to persuade other council members not to appoint the plaintiff, Levi Turner, to the Planning Commission. The same judge found in September she hadn’t willfully and knowingly violated FOIA by not giving Turner the documents in question in response to his records request. 

This week’s ruling determined that the city couldn’t be found liable for a FOIA violation because Ritter wasn’t the “official custodian” of the records, The Virginian-Pilot reported. The city also noted it had provided photographed copies of the documents taken by a council member that were turned over later after Ritter discarded the originals.  

According to the Pilot, the city’s legal counsel said “the court went out of its way to note that the city through its employees had done exactly what they were supposed to do under the circumstances.” 

Turner’s attorney said they disagreed with the ruling and are considering an appeal. 

“Today’s ruling informs the citizens that a sitting Council member may circulate anonymous, false documents in a closed meeting, defaming a citizen applying for office, then destroy that record, then not provide a copy of it to the requestor timely under (Virginia) FOIA, and subsequently remain unaccountable for any liability under FOIA,” the attorney told the Pilot. 

The Mercury’s efforts to track FOIA and other transparency cases in Virginia are indebted to the work of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit alliance dedicated to expanding access to government records, meetings and other state and local proceedings. 

Orange provides nondisclosure agreements after lawsuit

Orange County provided copies of 10 nondisclosure agreements local officials signed “for the benefit of, Inc. and its Affiliates” related to the planned Wilderness Crossing project after the Piedmont Environmental Council filed a FOIA lawsuit. 

The Wilderness Crossing proposal would involve the mixed-use development of roughly 2,600 acres in Orange County to include residential, commercial and light industrial uses, including the construction of data centers. This April, the county Board of Supervisors approved a rezoning of the land needed for the project to proceed. 

In a petition filed in Orange County Circuit Court, the environmental organization, which has opposed the development, said that the county refused to provide copies of the nondisclosure agreements, saying the documents contained proprietary information. 

“Typically, nondisclosure agreements are form agreements that do not contain proprietary information. Rather, parties typically execute nondisclosure agreements prior to sharing documents containing proprietary information,” the Piedmont Environmental Council wrote in its petition. By withholding the agreements, it continued, “Orange County took the position that the mere fact that a business may be considering doing business in, and not even with, Orange County is, in and of itself proprietary.” 

A planned hearing on the petition was delayed after the county provided the nondisclosure agreements.  

Fauquier won’t disclose details of settlement with internet provider

The Fauquier Times reported that Fauquier County reached a settlement with high-speed internet provider Data Stream, but “neither county supervisors nor the Fauquier County attorney would disclose specifics or even say whether taxpayers would be on the hook to pay for the settlement.” 

The two parties first entered into an agreement in 2019 to provide wireless to up to 10,000 county residents, with public funds helping subsidize the service. However, last year, Data Stream sued the county for $27 million, alleging breach of contract. Fauquier in turn sued the company for $10 million, claiming Data Stream had lied about its finances. 

Fauquier’s county attorney told the Times that the settlement, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors this month, is “confidential.” 

Have you experienced local or state officials denying or delaying your FOIA request? Tell us about it: [email protected]


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