Claremont FOIA case was costly

Published 1:40 pm Wednesday, February 1, 2017

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

CLAREMONT — A civil case fought over ten dollars and some change has cost a tiny town more than $46,000.

The Virginia Supreme Court denied an appeal by former Claremont Town Council member Donna Skinner over money she wanted returned concerning a series of Freedom of Information Act requests. Skinner also wanted the town to overturn a town resolution that dealt with charges for copies of documents.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The case, which was initially heard last year in Surry County Circuit Court, and was found in favor of the town, has ultimately resulted in the town spending $46,444 in legal fees, said Town Council member Brigid Jones.

That’s money that could have gone toward a playground for the children in town or other needs, Jones said, adding that the funds were pulled from multiple town accounts to cover the bill.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Claremont has about 320 residents and is located in the northeastern corner of Surry County. The town’s yearly operating budget runs less than $65,000 a year, Jones said.

Last year’s trial, which lasted eight hours in Surry Circuit Court, led the judge to call the case “trivial” and to say that Skinner was filing more FOIA requests than the small town staff could handle. At the time, Skinner was on the Town Council, but lost her seat in the May 2016 election.

Based on the number of Skinner’s requests, the town passed a resolution, at first charging 50 cents for black and white copies and $1 for color copies. The resolution was amended twice, with the final cost of a black and white copy being seven cents and 22 cents for a color copy. 

Skinner’s attorney argued that the seven cents was too expensive based on the town’s calculations concerning the size of an ink cartridge and should be 3.5 cents. The town admitted its accounting error, which drew praise from the judge.

That wasn’t the first time Skinner took on the town in court. In 2014, Skinner sued the town for FOIA violations and won — resulting in the town having to pay about $1,800 in attorney fees and court costs. After that victory, Skinner ran for town council and won.

Claremont town council members serve two-year terms.

Jones said Skinner continues to submit at least one FOIA request a month, but the court said the town doesn’t have to comply until Skinner pays the $10 or so that she owes.

Skinner’s attorney, Andrew Bodah, said he disagrees with that decision but declined to comment further on the case. Skinner also declined to comment.

As for the cost of the town hiring an attorney, Jones said it would be irresponsible of the town council not to hire an attorney, as it’s the duty of the council to protect the town’s interests.  {/mprestriction}