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Augusta County, facing flood of FOIA requests, throwing more money at the problem

Chris Graham
Augusta County
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Legendary football coach Bobby Bowden taught his players to block and tackle “to the echo of the whistle.” The approach of Augusta County leaders to FOIA seems motivated by the same line of thinking.

The county, over the past year, has been fighting efforts, “to the echo of the whistle,” by two local media groups, AFP and Breaking Through Media, to release the contents of a closed meeting held to discuss the resignation of a member of the Board of Supervisors, Steven Morelli, that a local circuit-court judge ruled in January was held illegally.

That ruling is now headed to the appellate level, after the judge, Thomas J. Wilson IV, inexplicably reversed himself upon listening to a recording of the meeting, holding now that the March 20, 2023, closed meeting was only a “technical mistake/violation” of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The new reasoning was based on Wilson declaring that the “subject matter of the audio recording contains information and statements that at times specifically identified county employees, and contained information and statements that would lead to a high probability of identification of county employees who are entitled to the privacy protections this exemption provides them.”

Keep in mind that, according to court testimony that Wilson heard in December, the “specifically identified county employees” referenced by Wilson are the alleged victims of sexual harassment, and that the alleged perpetrator of this sexual harassment is Morelli.

This much was already public knowledge.

The question upon the judge’s self-own is: what else is on that tape that persuaded him to keep it under wraps?

For example, could there have been an admission in the closed meeting by a county official that Morelli’s resignation, tendered “effective immediately,” making him, as AFP argued at the crux of its legal case, was a “private citizen”?

If that were the case, it would seem to serve to undermine the later claims by the county in court that it should be considered revocable under state law, which is the shield being used to keep the recording from being made public.

Or perhaps there was a sidebar discussion of another county elected official with a potential residency issue.

That kind of thing wouldn’t seem to qualify for the “privacy protections” under FOIA that Wilson wrote about in his ruling.


The county has already spent a significant amount of money on its defense in the March 20, 2023, FOIA case.

And now county leaders, whose position on the public’s right to know is, the public doesn’t have a right to know, are considering creating a new paid job to systematize that approach.

The Board of Supervisors, at a budget work session last week, discussed a proposal from County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald to add a records/FOIA technician position at a total cost of $55,747.98, citing the increase in FOIA requests in the current fiscal year.

According to Deputy County Administrator Jennifer Whetzel, the county has processed more than 200 FOIA requests, and counting, in the current fiscal year, more than double the number for the 2023 fiscal year.

The responses, and the time needed to craft them, can vary.

“You may have things that come in, that literally can get done in half an hour and move on. But then there if there’s any email searches, that type of thing, then that’s where the time lies in reviewing the records. So, that can take old days. It just depends on how many it is,” Whetzel told board members.

Board Chair Jeffrey Slaven said the top seven requests made for information under FOIA in the current fiscal year required a review of more than 18,000 documents.

“That’s what we’re looking at,” Slaven said.

“I personally think the FOIA officer is something that, and the last several years have proven that it is putting a strain on people in this building that need their resources and our time put other places,” Slaven said. “But I also think it’s a position, just as you said, sensitive. We have to be sure that whatever is being managed there, as relates to whatever is being done, it’s going to be high-caliber job.”

Another way of tackling this issue would be, you know, maybe not doing public business behind closed doors quite so much, so that residents and the local media wouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail to just try to keep tabs on what is being done in their name, and with their tax dollars.

Just a thought there.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].