During the trial phase of an action brought by citizens in Westmoreland County, a judge refused civil penalties for the Board of Supervisors, the Administrator of the IDA (Industrial Development Authority and the Zoning Administrator because (it was said) the officials didn’t know the requirements of the law for exemptions meant to satisfy the need for a closed meeting.
Frank Delano of the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star and Pamela D’Angelo of the Richmond Times Dispatch covered the decision handed down by retired Charlottesville Judge Jay T. Swett earlier this week.
Swett said the officials failed to cite a sufficiently specific reason for closing the meeting to the public, and that County Zoning Administrator Robert Fink erred in not providing in a timely fashion a document requested by the plaintiffs.
Swett said that county owed legal fees to the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the FOIA suit, but fines against county officials were unjustified because they acted without knowledge of the law’s details.
In a written ruling, Swett found the county’s action was willfully done, though he found no evidence that members of the Westmoreland Board of Supervisors or the Industrial Development Authority knew the legal consequences of going into a closed meeting without providing information in the minutes.
Of course, what the judge says carries a lot of weight. However, he is wrong, and his decision circumvents the law. Virginia Code (1950) 2.2-3700 is the applicable section of law here. It states (in part):
The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government. Any exemption from public access to records or meetings shall be narrowly construed and no record shall be withheld or meeting closed to the public unless specifically made exempt pursuant to this chapter or other specific provision of law.
2.2-3702 states (in part):
Any person elected, reelected, appointed or reappointed to any body not excepted from this chapter shall (i) be furnished by the public body’s administrator or legal counsel with a copy of this chapter within two weeks following election, reelection, appointment or reappointment and (ii) read and become familiar with the provisions of this chapter.
Is the judge contradicting the established law in this area? It clearly states that officials will become familiar with the provisions of the law, and will be furnished a copy of the law. Is the judge intimating that the officials in Westmoreland County have not performed their duties according to the law?
This is pretty straightforward stuff really. I would think a judge of the stature of Judge Swett would realize that the civil penalty portion of the law is meant to be punitive in nature. Yet, in black and white in the decision, there it is.
The officials didn’t know the legal requirements of the law concerning closed meetings.
I hope the plaintiffs appeal this decision.