Members of Staunton City Council appear in court for FOIA violation

Members of Staunton City Council appear in court for FOIA violation
General District Court in downtown Staunton (Source: WVIR)

STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) - Various members of Staunton City Council appeared in court today for a suit filed by Councilmember Brenda Mead against the mayor and vice mayor.

The suit is referring to a document from the September 10 city council meeting. Mead claims her FOIA rights were violated when she did not receive the document after requesting it via email.

Once it was determined Mayor Oakes was in final possession of the document, Mead’s council decided not to move further with the suit against Vice Mayor Robertson.

The trial began with testimonies from Mead, public officials and the Mayor. Of the more than three hour trial, the main questions were: when was the “official” request made for the document, did Mead make the request as a citizen or a city official, and how long did the mayor have to respond before it violated Mead’s rights.

Mead alleged that her initial email to the council and city manager started the clock on the FOIA request.

“We have a responsibility to provide it promptly or help the citizen understand why can’t do it. We can’t simply ignore it we cant simply assume that somebody else is going to do it,” Mead explained.

According to the Freedom of Information Act, someone seeking information must receive a response within five working days and one does not need to make clear that it is a FOIA request.

There was a large amount of confusion as to when the request was official. Mead said it was when she sent the first email to council, and Oakes said it was when she received the official request from the FOIA officer.

“There was absolutely no malicious intent at all. If Brenda would have just reached out to me I would have been happy to work with her,” said Mayor Oakes.

Ultimately, Judge Robin Mayer found that no matter what day the request came or whether or not the request was clearly specified as FOIA, it was the responsibility of the elected official in possession of the document to make it available to Councilwoman Mead in the respected time frame for FOIA requests.

The ruling was that councilwoman Mead’s FOIA rights were violated and her attorney fees and court costs would have to be paid. Judge Mayer also said she believes that the FOIA request is not the only issue among council, and there seems to be something much deeper going on.

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