IWCS confirms FOIA settlement

Published 6:33 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Isle of Wight County schools paid $20,000 in attorney’s fees to settle two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

Two civil lawsuits filed in late 2020 by Virginia Beach-based attorney Kevin Martingayle with the firm Bischoff Martingayle on behalf of county resident Kathryne Carter Lemon accused the board of providing vague or insufficient details regarding decisions made in closed session and communicating the incorrect start time for board meetings. The board agreed to a legal consent order in January to end the lawsuits.

In a statement at a Jan. 14 meeting, board chairwoman Jackie Carr, on behalf of the board members, denied school officials knowingly or willfully violated the law. The purpose of FOIA laws and policies is to ensure everyone has free access to public meetings and records.

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The first lawsuit was filed in late September and centered on a now-corrected mistake in communicating the start time for the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meetings. The board typically convenes the meeting at 5 p.m., announces its intent to meet in closed session, then reconvenes in public at 6 p.m. At the end of the public portion of the meeting, the board may vote in public on any matters from the private portion of the meeting.

At some point, however, incorrect information was published that stated the meeting started at 6 p.m. However, the public is and always has been free to attend at 5 p.m. to witness the board convene the meeting and announce its reasons for entering a closed session. According to the board, communicating that the public portion of the meeting starts at 6 p.m. was intended as a courtesy to keep people from arriving at the meeting at 5 p.m. only to sit and wait for an undetermined amount of time while the board members are meeting privately.

In response to the lawsuit, Carr asked the board clerk to arrange for FOIA-related training from the Virginia School Board Association for the five elected board members, Superintendent Jim Thornton and Lynn Briggs, the school division’s spokeswoman and FOIA representative. But Lemon sued the board again before this training could be completed.

The board received the training during a Feb. 24 meeting session that was open to the public. Briggs confirmed the financial aspect of the settlement in a March 3 email in response to a request from The Smithfield Times.

The crux of the second lawsuit was that the school board’s procedures and public documents did not provide a level of detail that would allow the public to reasonably discern what exactly the board would be deciding in closed sessions, including personnel issues such as hiring, re-assigning, disciplining or firing school division employees.

In a four-point final order approved by an Isle of Wight County Circuit Court judge on Jan. 21,  the school board acknowledged that its motions to enter closed meetings in October 2020 “were not specific enough for purposes of compliance with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.”

As part of the settlement, the board said matters to be discussed in closed session will be described in more specific detail so that the public may be more reasonably informed about the decisions being made. Copies of the personnel report will be made available at the same time as the board’s vote on the report and meeting minutes will be published “as soon as reasonably possible” after approval.

Richmond-based firm Haney Phinyowattanachip represented the school board in both legal cases.