September 19, 2006

Civil Liberties Group Argues Region Ten Community Services Board Violated Open Meeting Provisions of the Freedom of Information Act

The Charlottesville Circuit Court will hear arguments tomorrow afternoon in a challenge to a closed meeting of the Region Ten Community Services Board held on February 13, 2006. The ACLU of Virginia, representing the Little High Area Neighborhood Association Steering Committee, will argue that the meeting violated the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The case arises from Region Ten’s consideration of the expansion of a residential mental health facility on Little High Street in Charlottesville. During its regular meeting on February 13, the Board indicated that it would go into closed session to discuss “a personnel matter and legal issues.” The Board did not specify the topics to be discussed, as required by FOIA.
Moreover, an e-mail from a person who attended the closed session indicates that the board went beyond legal and personnel matters, and included discussion of the Little High Street project, including “financing, the press coverage, and the neighborhood association.” Under FOIA, such topics may only be discussed in open meetings.
The ACLU wrote to the board on July 17, 2006, seeking an explanation for these discrepancies. A lawyer for Region Ten responded that the board had done nothing wrong, but did not provide any further information.
“In order for democracy to function, it is essential that citizens have access to the workings of government,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “Public bodies are not above the law, and that includes law requiring their meetings be open except under very specific and narrowly defined circumstances.”
“This case is not about the merits of the Little High Street project,” added Willis, “but about the need for open and transparent discussion of government programs.”
Willis added that the ACLU of Virginia has a longstanding policy of assisting anyone with FOIA requests. In the early 1990s, the ACLU challenged the Senate Finance Committee’s tradition of holding secret meetings prior to the opening of the legislative session. In 1998, the ACLU pressured then Governor James Gilmore to release a secret report on conditions in Virginia’s mental institutions. The ACLU is currently challenging a state law that prevents incarcerated persons from using the FOIA. Over the last fifteen years, the ACLU has also assisted scores of individuals after public officials refused to respond to their FOIA requests.
The Little High Area Neighborhood Association will be represented tomorrow by Charlottesville attorney Janice Redinger and ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg.

Contacts: Kent Willis or Rebecca Glenberg - 804/644-8022; Janice Redinger – 434/923-0000