Processing costs, administrative overhead, appeals and litigation costs are well known to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) world, with the cost of litigation often being the highest and most motivating factor. However, in the case of Virginia’s Loudoun County Board of Equalization (BOE), the FOIA may additionally cost BOE their jobs.
The developing situation, which now includes two separate court cases, stems from a simple photograph snapped by journalist Beverly Bradford at a meeting of the BOE, which was hearing a tax appeal for the National Conference Center in Landsdowne, VA. Moments later, a sheriff’s deputy was summoned and asked Ms. Bradford to step out of the meeting. Ms. Bradford thereafter filed a FOIA complaint, citing Section2.2-3707, which states “Any person may photograph, film, record or otherwise reproduce any portion of a meeting required to be open. The public body conducting the meeting may adopt rules governing the placement and use of equipment necessary for broadcasting, photographing, filming or recording a meeting to prevent interference with the proceedings, but shall not prohibit or otherwise prevent any person from photographing, filming, recording, or otherwise reproducing any portion of a meeting required to be open.” The county’s Board of Supervisors advised the BOE to apologize and avoid costly litigation. Instead of heeding this advice, the BOE has run up a bill of approximately $54,000 (so far) in legal fees. Moreover, the BOE is looking to the Board of Supervisors to pay for the very legal battle they had urged BOE to avoid.
When the Board of Supervisors refused to pay, the BOE launched a legal battle against them as well, suing them to compel payment. The Board of Supervisors, in the meantime, reached out to the State government, proposing a bill that would allow the county to select its BOE members. This would ostensibly mean that the Board of Supervisors could replace those persons now suing both the Supervisors and Ms. Bradford.
Many would argue that the cost of FOIA is high enough already. Ms. Bradford has asked the court to order the BOE to uphold the FOIA in the future, attend FOIA training, contribute $2,000 to the Virginia Literacy Fund and pay her costs. Combined with the $54,000 the BOE has already spent, it is safe to say that the Loudoun County Board of Equalization members may have learned the hard way that not upholding FOIA can come with a price tag … and maybe cost them their jobs.
For more details and to see the photograph in questions, read the article on the Washington Post.
The battle continues as a Loudon County judge disbelieves BOE, but rules in favor of the costly FOIA case. Cannon, however, acknowledges that the litigation could have been entirely avoided.