Virginia Freedom of Information Act lawsuit settled

My client and I were very pleased with the settlement reached in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought against Greater Lynchburg Transit Company (GLTC) and Lisa Dibble (former GLTC board President) after 2 plus hours of mediation on August 22, 2012.  The lawsuit was brought under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Our client initially filed without legal representation but decided it would be in his best interest to retain a lawyer after running into several obstacles thrown up by the defense lawyer.  Our office was retained and we filed a Bill of Particulars on Mr. DePaul’s behalf, which set forth the basic premises of the case as follows:

“5. Virginia Code 2.2-3707 requires that “All meetings of public bodies shall be open, except as provided in §§ 2.2-3707.01 and 2.2-3711.” Additionally, “[E]very public body shall give notice of the date, time, and location of its meetings by placing the notice in a prominent public location at which notices are regularly posted and in the office of the clerk of the public body, or in the case of a public body that has no clerk, in the office of the chief administrator.”

6. Virginia Code 2.2-3701 states that a “Meeting” or “meetings” “means the meetings including work sessions, when sitting physically, or through telephonic or video equipment pursuant to § 2.2-3708 or 2.2-3708.1, 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.”

7. On June 16, 2011, Lisa Dibble, (Acting GLTC President at the time), convened a meeting with Jim Mundy (Acting GLTC Vice-President at the time), and Jennifer Martin (Acting GLTC Secretary/Treasurer at the time) and Bill Williamson to discuss GLTC affairs. Said meeting was closed to the public, no agenda was provided to the public, no minutes were kept, and public notice of the meeting was not provided as required by Virginia Code § 2.2-3707. Closure of the meeting also violated Virginia Code § 2.2-3712. See Plaintiff’s Exhibit 1

8. On another occasion, Defendant Dibble convened a meeting via telephone conference with Jim Mundy (GLTC Vice-President), and Jennifer Martin (GLTC Secretary/Treasurer). See Plaintiff’s Exhibit 2. Said meeting was closed to the public, no agenda was provided to the public, no minutes were kept, and public notice of the meeting was not provided as required by Virginia Code § 2.2-3707. Holding the meeting via teleconference violated Virginia Code § 2.2-3708.”

We expected to uncover additional details as to the alleged violations and other similar occurrences via discovery and witness interviews prior to trial.  Settlement means that we will not investigate other potential violations up to the date of the mediation agreement.

The purpose of the lawsuit was to enforce the requirements of FOIA and to protect the public’s right to know about the goings on at GLTC.  It was unfair for my client to be accused of prosecuting a personal vendetta against the former board president.  While it is true that my client was upset with how his complaints regarding FOIA violations were handled by board leadership, the lawsuit would never have been filed if his complaints were properly addressed in the first place.   Despite the unnecessary allegations against him personally, Mr. DePaul held true to his cause and saw the matter through to a successful conclusion.

FOIA violations are almost always serious.  In this case there was increased cause for concern because the known violations occurred during the height of a major budget fiasco wherein hundreds of thousands of dollars had either possibly gone missing or been misspent.  Circumstances such as these increase the need for strict adherence to  FOIA requirements because GLTC is a public body funded in large part by public funds.  The FOIA policy statement found at Virginia Code 2.2-3700 states:

” The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government. Unless a public body or its officers or employees specifically elect to exercise an exemption provided by this chapter or any other statute, every meeting shall be open to the public ….All public records and meetings shall be presumed open, unless an exemption is properly invoked.”

Since this is a blog I will leave it at that.  Here are a few links to the news stories regarding the case:

http://www2.newsadvance.com/news/2012/aug/25/gltc-settles-foia-dispute-through-arbitration-ar-2152632/

http://www2.newsadvance.com/news/2012/aug/23/mediation-brings-agreement-dismissal-foia-suit-aga-ar-2149776/

I greatly appreciate the even treatment the parties were given by the Lynchburg News and Advance reporter Alicia Petska, who was always receptive to my comments and allowed Mr. DePaul’s side of the story to be heard and fairly reported despite the allegations of a personal nature that were made against him by some of the defendants and/or their representatives.

 

Personally, I am a very firm believer in the need for strong ‘sunshine’ laws and am always interested in hearing from anyone who may need legal assistance in order to enforce FOIA in any context.

 

Brian R. Moore

 

 


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