Virginia Lawyers Weekly//July 20, 2020
Virginia Lawyers Weekly//July 20, 2020//
A town council complied with the Freedom of Information Act when it went into closed session to discuss personnel matters.
Plaintiff Hart has filed a complaint raising three issues regarding the town council’s compliance with FOIA in relation to calling a special meeting and then going into a closed session on personnel matters.
Plaintiff argues the special meeting notice did not comply with Code § 15.2-1418, that the subject of the closed meeting did not fall within any exception to FOIA’s open meeting requirement under Code Section 15.2-14A, and that the motion to go into closed session did not comply with FOIA requirements.
The town manager sent an email notice to Hart about the special meeting. Code § 15.2-1418 requires that the notice be in writing and delivered in person to the recipient or to his residence or place of business. Email notice is permitted only if the recipient requests one. Hart testified that he did not request one but also testified that he did receive the email and filed an objection to the meeting.
The town charter requires “only ‘reasonable notice’” for special meeting notices.
“Assuming that the email notice of the special meeting did not comply with Code Section 15.2-1418, I find nothing in the Code of Virginia that invalidates the actions taken at a special meeting where the notice did not meet the requirements of Code Section 15.2-14. In any case, the failure of the notice to meet the requirements of Code Section 15.2-14 does not constitute a FOIA violation.”
Code Section 15.2-14 allows public bodies to hold closed session to discuss performance and discipline of “specific public officials.” Code § 15.2-1400 “provides that members of public bodies can be fined or punished for ‘disorderly conduct.’ This code section provides the formal authority for the town council to discipline its members. Consequently, the town council’s decision to go into closed session to discuss Mayor Hart’s performance and any disciplining of the mayor was an appropriate topic for a closed meeting.”
A motion to go into a closed session “must identify the subject matter of the meeting, state the purpose of the meeting and make specific reference to the applicable exemption from the open meeting requirements.” The motion in this case referenced Code § 2.2-3711(A) as the applicable exemption. The motion reference discussion or consideration of personnel matters regarding “the Elected Governing Body of the Town of Onley” as the meeting’s purpose.
The motion stated the subject was related to “parliamentary procedure, meeting decorum and professionalism. … A discussion about parliamentary procedure standing alone would not be a proper subject for a closed meeting, but when considered in the context of the demeanor and professionalism of members of council it indicates that it is the adherence to parliamentary procedure which is going to be discussed.
“These topics fall under the category of ‘performance’ and ‘disciplining’ of specific public officers which is permitted under Code Section 2.2-3711. For these reasons I find that the motion to go into closed session complied with FOIA requirements.”
“[T]he Onley Town Council complied with FOIA requirements when it went into closed session on May 16, 2020 and that petitioner is not entitled to an injunction.”
Hart v. Town of Onley, Case No. GV200000992-00, July 9, 2020, Lynchburg General District Ct. (Eggleston). David W. Rowan, Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. for the parties. VLW 020-10-002, 3 pp.