On April Fool's Day, "Think Christiansburg" reported that Christiansburg's Town Council agenda included a resolution to provide ample notice, in time and means, of all public meetings, confirming the town's commitment for following the letter, intent and spirit of open government and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as a parody of what town citizens could hope for and council could aspire to.
At the actual council meeting held on April 1, the Mayor opened the meeting by requesting legal counsel research and report on requirements relative to the Freedom of Information Act regarding proper meeting notification, what constituted an official meeting, and any suggested training for council members and personnel to ensure full compliance with this law.
On April 3, the Roanoke Times reported that Christiansburg Town Council had violated FOIA laws.
On April 5, "Think Christiansburg" posted a reader's comments about FOIA being in existence for over 40 years and suggesting Town Council had had ample time to adapt and adopt these principles and the law's intentions.
On April 15, the Mayor reminded those present that he had asked the Town attorneys to research the Freedom of Information Act in terms of how Christiansburg does business.
On April 26, "Think Christiansburg" reported the Mayor had scheduled "training" on FOIA requirements, noting it would occur seven weeks in the future (and after town elections).
Last night, on June 3, this "training" occurred, and it was simply a very basic summary of state code -- the law -- relative to FOIA.
The Mayor prefaced last night's "training" with comments indicating that whenever a new member joined council, they were introduced to FOIA through Virginia Municipal League and town orientation programs. This information was again provided annually by the town's attorney, as required by FOIA laws. The Mayor stated that Christiansburg leaders never intentionally, deliberately or blatantly defied FOIA laws. He stressed that citizens should trust that town administration and council insists on having open government, as to the the letter and intent of FOIA.
The basic purpose of FOIA is to provide citizens with ready access to public records and free entry to public meetings. Provisions of FOIA are to be liberally construed in order to promote increased awareness of government activities and afford every opportunity to witness its operations.
A public meeting occurs anytime (i) as many as three members or (ii) a quorum, if less than three, council members or appointed officials meet and discuss town business, requiring a minimum notification of three (3) working days. At a minimum, this notice must be posted in a prominent public location and clerk's or Town Manager's office. "A prominent public location" generally may include newspaper publication (calendar information or advertisement) and on web sites, where this is available. Electronic meetings -- email or telephone -- are not generally permitted except in cases of an emergency or a medical condition of one of its members, with specific conditions needing to be met in these situations. All materials provided to council must be made available to the public at the same time, with at least one copy of these materials available at all public meetings.
Minutes for regular meetings (council and planning commission, for example) are required, but not for committee or subcommittee meetings (cemetery or central business district, for example). Closed meetings are permitted -- but not required -- for only certain limited purposes, and this purpose must be identified. No action agreed to in a closed meeting is effective (legal), unless and until council reconvenes in an open meeting and takes a vote.
Requests for information applies to those items that already exist and are to be responded to within 5 working days. If not provided, one of four listed responses must be made, including one to extend the response time for another seven (7) days. Exclusions are provided for specifically listed reasons. Reasonable fees may be assessed for providing requested information and future requests may be denied if an individual previously requested the same information or has not paid past FOIA charges.
Enforcement is provided by petitioning for mandamus or injunction and supported by an affidavit showing good cause. Penalties for violations can be assessed, with subsequent violations receiving increasing fines. Penalties can be imposed upon a member in an individual capacity.
Council members were pointed to helpful websites, for ongoing reference purposes:
Now we're all on the same page, having assurances everyone -- town council, administrators and the public -- has been provided and can access the same information on FOIA. Watch for more information on this subject, including dialog and questions from this "training" session, a review of how FOIA requirements (previously available to council members per the Mayor's statements), has been applied in the past, and any changes noted from BT (before "training") and AT (after "training").
A Cakewalk Blog entry printed December 5, 2013 at 9:54:10 AM. © 2008
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