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Augusta County loses FOIA appeal, ordered to turn over tapes of BOS closed meeting

Chris Graham
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A circuit court judge has ordered Augusta County to provide a copy of the recording of a March 20 Board of Supervisors closed meeting involving the resignation of Steven Morelli.

The ruling, dated Jan. 11, was shared on Wednesday with the petitioners, Breaking Through Media, one of two entities, along with Augusta Free Press, to challenge the county’s denial of requests under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act for access to a recording of the March 20 meeting.

The recording was made by Scott Seaton, the Wayne District Supervisor, and was turned over by Seaton, at the request of the Board of Supervisors, on Aug. 9.

In a separate ruling in the appeal of the FOIA ruling by AFP, also dated Jan. 11, Judge Thomas J. Wilson IV wrote that the recordings, “having been turned over to the County, are now County public records and no longer the private property of Dr. Seaton,” overruling General District Court Judge Rupen R. Shah, who in an Oct. 12 decision declared that the recordings were not subject to FOIA because they were made by Seaton “for simply self-serving purpose and is not a record of the agency nor is kept in a normal course of its business.”

The records having been declared public records, and thus FOIA-able, Wilson then sided, in the Breaking Through Media case, with the contention brought by the plaintiff’s counsel, Amina Matheny-Willard, who cited a 2020 Virginia Supreme Court decision, styled Cole v. Smyth County Board of Supervisors, in which the high court had sided with the petitioner, Cole, in a case involving a closed meeting of that board of supervisors held to discuss the possible closing of the county library system.

In that 2020 ruling, the court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn, observed that the relevant state code section, 2.2-3712(A), states that a “general reference to … the subject matter of the closed meeting shall not be sufficient,” and that “this prohibition against ‘general reference[s]’ is an implicit requirement that a motion effectively identify the subject matter to be discussed in the closed session. The Motions’ broad mention of ‘actual or probable litigation’ does not do so.”

The motion read and adopted by the Augusta County Board of Supervisors to go into closed session at its March 20, 2023, meeting was of the “general reference” variety, as County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald attested to in court testimony at a Dec. 21 hearing.

“(F)or the personnel exemption for the closed session, the County simply listed one of the subject matters as ‘Board of Supervisors.’ That statement is too cryptic, is merely a general reference to the subject matter, and does not contain the particularity I believe the statute requires,” Wilson wrote in his ruling in the Breaking Through Media case.

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].