Virginia high court lets ruling stand barring board from excluding reporter from meeting
VIRGINIA — In early January, the state Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors violated the state open meetings law by excluding a reporter from a two-member budget and finance committee conference.
The state high court’s refusal to review the case left intact a lower court’s June 1993 injunction barring the board from closing meetings of its two-member committees.
The lawsuit began when two board members, supervisors Cynthia G. Dellinger and W. William Ortts, formed the board’s budget and finance committee. They refused to admit Lisa Daniel, a reporter for the Northern Virginia Daily in Strasburg, to an April 16, 1993, budget work session, a discussion of possible tax increases and cuts in the proposed fiscal 1994 budget.
Shenandoah Publishing House Inc., which publishes the newspaper, sued the board and the committee members in April in circuit court in Woodstock. The newspaper argued that the policy of the FOI Act requires subcommittees such as the Budget and Finance Committee to conduct business in the open.
The act defines a meeting as an assemblage of “as many as three members, or a quorum, if less than three, of the constituent membership, wherever held, with or without minutes being taken, whether or not votes are cast.”
The board argued that either three members of the board or a quorum of the constituent body (i.e. four members of the board) must be present for the meeting to be subject to the FOI Act.
In the year preceding this case, the board had a budget committee of three people and conducted open meetings. The board reduced the committee to two members in an apparent effort to avoid the FOI Act, according to court documents.
According to the Associated Press, new board chairman D. William Pence has restructured the board’s committees to make their meetings clearly open to the public under the FOI Act. The number of committees will be reduced from eight to three, with three members serving on each, instead of two, and there will be a regularly scheduled monthly date for meetings.
(Board of Supervisors of Shenandoah Co. v. Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc.; Media Counsel: J. David Griffith, Winchester)