Friday, November 13, 2009

Council to honor FOIA regulations, Aug. 18 closed session violated meeting rules

Council to honor FOIA regulations
Aug. 18 closed session violated meeting rules

By Cynthia Cather Burton
The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — A City Council panel has committed a procedural violation of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, according to Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

The council’s Finance and Administration Committee held a closed-session meeting Aug. 18 to discuss a memorandum of understanding drafted by Shenandoah University.

When it began the closed session, the committee cited the portion of the Freedom of Information Act that allows closed meetings to confer with legal counsel about a real estate matter.

Everett said the committee correctly cited the code section and the purpose for the closed session, but it failed to identify the subject of the special meeting.

During closed sessions, the public and news media are not allowed to be present.

If people are being “kicked out,” they have a right to know “some idea of the subject,” Everett said Thursday from her Richmond office. “It doesn’t have to be gruelingly specific ... but just a reference to real estate or legal advice is insufficient and a procedural violation of the law.”

The committee’s motion to move into a closed session should have included a subject, such as the joint venture with the university on projects, she offered as an example. “The subject is required.”

Without it, the public has no idea about the nature of the discussions that public officials have behind closed doors, Everett said.

The minutes from the Aug. 18 meeting, for instance, contain no references to the memorandum of understanding, making it difficult for the public to know when the topic was discussed by officials in closed session.

“They did violate the rights granted to the public and press under FOIA,” Everett said. “They are obligated to do it correctly, and they did not. They can be sued on that basis.”

City Council President Jeff Buettner, who attended the Aug. 18 meeting, said the council typically cites only the code section and purpose before going into a closed session, but does not state a subject.

“I think it’s fair to state that we probably haven’t been as specific as we should,” he said. “But it’s not because we’re trying to hide anything.”

Everett called the practice “an ignorance issue, more than anything.”

Buettner said the council acts on advice from its attorney. From now on, as much information as possible will be included in motions for closed sessions, he said, as long as it does not jeopardize the city government’s position on “any specific issues.”

City Attorney Anthony “Tony” Williams declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.

For the remaining story in The Winchester Star, following this link :
Council to honor FOIA regulations, Aug. 18 closed session violated meeting rules

Buettner explains decision to hike city attorney's salary nearly $20k

A special session of the Winchester Common Council was held on Tuesday, October 6, 2009 in the Council Chambers, Rouss City Hall. President Jeffrey Buettner called the meeting to order at 6:59 p.m.

PRESENT: President Jeff Buettner; Vice-Mayor Michael Butler; Councilors Evan Clark, John Hill, Milt McInturff, Les Veach and John Willingham; Vice-President Art Major; Mayor Elizabeth Minor (9)

The perception was that the local media was not present or could not stick around after this executive session on Tuesday, October 6, 2009  due to their respective deadlines.
• Motion to convene in Executive Session pursuant to §2.2-3711(A)(1) of the Code of Virginia to discuss a personnel matter regarding assignment, appointment, performance, and salaries of specific public appointees.

Councilor Willingham moved to convene in executive session. The motion was seconded then
unanimously approved by voice-vote.

At 7:01 p.m. President Buettner stated that executive session would begin after a five minute recess.

Upon returning at 7:44 p.m., council members approved a motion to return to open meeting and each member certified that only public business matters lawfully exempted from open meeting requirements of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act were discussed during the closed meeting, and that only those public business matters identified in the motion which convened the closed meeting were heard, discussed, or considered during the closed meeting.

A roll call vote was taken, the ayes and nays being recorded as shown below:


Councilor Buettner Aye
Councilor Butler Aye
Councilor Clark Aye
Councilor Hill Aye
Councilor Major Aye
Councilor McInturff Aye
Mayor Minor Aye
Councilor Veach Aye
Councilor Willingham Aye

Page 2 October 6, 2009

• President Buettner presented a motion to increase the City Attorney’s annual salary to $124,000.  The motion was seconded by Councilor Willingham and then unanimously approved by voice-vote.  President Buettner stated that Council would ask the City Manager to look at employee salaries throughout the City and would need to pay them competitively. During the next budget cycle, the other employees would be compensated.

A quote from a local reporter in response to this increase which the local media was not aware until someone from downtown notified The Pub on Wednesday, October 21, 2009 in return was shared with the local media outlets which produced a front page story in the NVD on Thursday, October 22nd.  The Winchester Star ran a story on page B5 of the local section the same day.

The night I DIDN'T stick around after the "executive session" ... actually I think no one from the media stuck around. Keep in mind, this is NOT an election year for council.

All media reps who attended the Oct. 6 meeting left when council convened in closed session and no one returned.

The length of closed sessions are never known beforehand so media reps who face deadline issues often have to return to their offices in enough time to file stories. I can't say whether council realized everyone had left and THEN decided to act or if they would not have taken action were any of us still at the meeting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are the citizens of Winchester paying Mr. Williams $124,000 for ignorance or what?

One would hope that the citizens are getting more bang for the buck than this!

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