A Virginia state judge ruled last week that the Augusta County Board of Equalization violated the state Freedom of Information Act after it failed to conduct open meetings and produce meeting minutes, resulting in an invalidation of the board’s former ruling for what looks like the first time in Virginia.
The ruling is significant as it appears to be the first time a Virginia judge has voided government action taken in violation of the open meetings requirements found within the state Freedom of Information Act.
In a letter opinion, Augusta County Circuit Judge Victor Ludwig wrote that as a result of the meetings violation, Fort Defiance resident Thomas Cline was entitled to a refund for excess taxes, a readjustment in his property tax assessment and reimbursement for his attorney fees.
The conflict originated on Nov. 9, 2009, when Cline received a letter from the board that said a hearing would soon be held to decide if his property tax assessment would be increased. Beforehand, a group of people who lived near Cline’s 63-acre lot complained that Cline's assessment was lower than theirs, and wanted the board to lower their taxes accordingly.
Cline was invited to a hearing on Nov. 18, but the board waited until after he had left the room to vote to raise Cline’s assessment from $942,100 to $1.02 million. The board was unable to provide records of the meeting and more information about the people who asked for the hearing when requested to do so by Cline.
According to Judge Ludwig’s opinion, in taking the vote in private, the board violated a provision of Virginia's Freedom of Information Act that states, “No … motion adopted, passed or agreed to in a closed meeting shall become effective unless the public body reconvenes in an open meeting.”
Furthermore, the Board of Equalization held its meetings in a small conference room that discouraged the public from attending, according to the judge's letter. While in session, a sign on the board’s door read, “Please wait until you are called."
Stephen Strosnider, Cline’s attorney, said he believed the Board of Equalization was unaware that the Virginia open meetings statute applied to them.
“I think there’s an innocent explanation for how they did it, but unfortunately, you just can’t ignore FOIA,” he said.
Strosnider, as well as County Attorney Patrick Morgan, said they were unable to find a precedent of a court ruling in which the board’s decision was voided because they failed to comply with Freedom of Information laws.
“There are violations, it’s pretty clear cut that those requirements are part of FOIA, but it’s less clear what happens when those requirements aren’t met,” Strosnider said. “That’s the most challenging legal aspect of the case.”
Morgan said the board will move its meetings to a publicly-accessible room where the public will be free to attend in the future.