Virginia Supreme Court grants review in suit alleging open meetings violations by Fairfax County School Board
The Virginia Supreme Court has granted review in a suit brought by a parent alleging that the Fairfax County School Board (FCSB) violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), reports the Fairfax Times. Jill DeMello Hill’s legal complaint charges that several FCSB members were corresponding with each other through emails, which were not made public. Because more than two board members were corresponding via email, she argues that board members violated Virginia’s open meeting provisions under FOIA.
The FOIA lawsuit was one of two against FCSB in response to its July 2010 vote to close Clifton Elementary School. “It’s a really important case,” Hill said. “It’s important to us because we want our school open. But it’s important as a game-changer because it gives the open meeting law some teeth. … The whole purpose of the open meeting law is to know what they are thinking when they make a decision.”
Newly elected FCSB member Elizabeth Schultz was involved with the other lawsuit against the school board for its Clifton vote. That suit was appealed to the state supreme court in June 2011, but the court denied review. “While the original issue is Clifton [Elementary School], it really has to do with the conduct of the School Board,” Schultz said about the lawsuits. “This has always been about equality and the law…If there were no merit, they would not have granted us that appeal.”
In its order granting review, the Virginia Supreme Court limited the appeal to looking at the county circuit court verdict, and costs and fees accrued by Hill because of the lawsuit. No date for the hearing has been set.
Source: Fairfax Times, 12/16/11, By Holly Hobbs
[Editor's Note: In July 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Washington Post reporting that a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge had dismissed Hill's lawsuit accusing the FCSB of violating Virginia's FOIA while deliberating the closure of Clifton Elementary School. The suit charged that FCSB conducted secret meetings through e-mails and failed to produce public documents relevant to the decision, and, as a result of those FOIA violations tainted the democratic process enough to warrant overturning the board’s controversial decision to close the school. The lower court judge concluded that although board members sent dozens of e-mails to each other debating the merits of closing the school, up to and during the meeting itself when the vote was taken, the intervals between those e-mails were large enough that the communication could not be construed as a “virtually simultaneous interaction” that would amount to a secret meeting among themselves.
Virginia's statutory open meetings provisions are contained within its Freedom of Information Act. The Act defines a "meeting" or "meetings" as "the meetings including work sessions, when sitting physically, or through telephonic or video equipment pursuant . . . as a body or entity, or as an informal assemblage of (i) as many as three members or (ii) a quorum, if less than three, of the constituent membership, wherever held, with or without minutes being taken, whether or not votes are cast, of any public body."
The Act prohibits public bodies, including school boards, from conducting a meeting "wherein the public business is discussed or transacted through telephonic, video, electronic or other communication means where the members are not physically assembled." (There is an exception for electronic participation by a member who is not able to attend the meeting in person, with specific required procedures.) VA Code Ann. § 2.2-3701, 2.2-3708.]