VIRGINIA — An environmental group filed two lawsuits in early September alleging that the governor, as well as a number of Virginia and Prince William County agencies, violated Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act by withholding documents concerning the Disney’s America theme park that the Walt Disney Co. hopes to build in northern Virginia.
Lawyers filed the complaints in state circuit court in Manassas and Richmond on behalf of Piedmont Environmental Council President Robert T. Dennis, seeking release of the information and assessment of civil penalties against the involved officials for intentionally violating the act. According to Dennis’ complaint, much of the discussions about the project and its effect on the local and state traffic, environment, community, and economy, “remain clouded in mystery and concealed by a blanket of official secrecy.”
According to the complaint, Dennis filed FOI Act requests in January about Disney’s development plans, seeking documents from the Planning, Public Works, Economic Development, Fire & Rescue, County Executive, Housing and Community Development, Library System, Police, and Mapping & Information departments of Prince William County. Specifically, Dennis asked for records about consideration of or planning for the project, such as information related to zoning, environmental impact and roads. Dennis also filed requests in January and February seeking information about the Commonwealth’s endorsement of Disney’s proposal from the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Department of Economic Development, the Office of the Governor, and the Department of Environmental Quality.
The county attorney turned over a “limited number of documents” in February and March, amounting to 3,172 pages, and charged $1,183.04. The complaint argues that the documents “were provided in a manner calculated to render it difficult or impossible to determine which records were obtained from the various responding agencies,” and that the way the requests were handled “demonstrates a calculated effort to delay or forestall meaningful response.”
The county also withheld some documents, citing discretionary exemptions pertaining to memoranda, working papers, correspondence, written opinions, documents compiled for use in litigation, and law enforcement records. According to the complaint, the county also did not offer legally required written explanations for the exemptions, inadequately accounted for the grounds for redacting some material in a two-page document, and failed to give reasonably segregable portions of the records withheld as exempt. The complaint filed against the Commonwealth states that the Office of the Governor’s responses were similarly lacking.
According to the Washington Post, PEC’s lawyers said they had hoped the lawsuit would cause the Prince William County Planning Commission to postpone its Sept. 10 vote on the $650 million, 3,000 acre project. They did not believe, however, that the challenge would delay the park. The vote was postponed until Sept. 21 because of “issues that remain to be resolved,” one of the commissioners, referring to plans for airshows and nightly fireworks, told the Post.
The Post also reported that Prince William County Attorney Sharon E. Pandak has called the suit “much ado about nothing,” and has said that the county has withheld only information exempted under the law, providing as many as 2,375 documents at one time. The Washington Post similarly reported that a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general’s office, which is representing Gov. George Allen, has also said that the only documents refused PEC were exempt, namely the governor’s working papers and proprietary information provided by Disney. (Dennis v. Board of Supervisors; Dennis v. Allen; Requester’s Counsel: David D. Aufhauser, Washington, D.C.)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.