I had referred to Buckingham School Division in earlier stories. I made another FOIA request, this time in writing (not required) in an email (not required).
I won’t go into what was requested or what the subject is, but it provides lessons for those who are interested in finding out about their government and what they are really doing. My experience with government generally is that they want to keep things as secret as possible.
The question which must be answered here is, “What constitutes a ‘personnel matter’ under the Virginia FOIA?”
Let’s talk hypothetically here. This is whole cloth, made up in my mind for an example.
For example, there could be a situation with an employee of a government body. A county, a school division, ABC, VDOT, etc. FOIA requests are only made to public bodies covered in the Virginia Code. Some public bodies are exempt from the Virginia FOIA law, for instance, the State Corporation Commission.
You are interested in finding out about this, so you ask the public body to produce documents showing an alleged offense that caused a personnel action. Here’s where it gets sticky.
The offense in this made-up case is a sensitive one, and of course, personnel decision making processes and conversation or discussion about personnel items and/or punishment or worse take place behind close doors in Executive Session (closed meeting). Rightfully so. Employees and public bodies alike don’t need to have these details made public.
Are the materials that were discovered that led to the personnel action also considered exempt items?
Should we be allowing the exemption of the documents and records of the offense itself? Do they contain 100% of the answers about the offense? Probably not. Are they embarrassing? Probably. Let’s say that in our fake case that there is an incriminating videotape from a surveillance camera.
Is the offense seen being committed on that camera recording just as sensitive as the accompanying punishment and details? Probably. Are they “personnel matters”? I posit that no, they are not. They are not personnel related until the need for personnel action arises. The offense is committed, the evidence is found. At that point it is a personnel matter.
Now think about a situation containing the same circumstances where the documents themselves are ugly, or contain subject matter or other items that in the opinion of the people in charge of that public body, should not be seen by anyone except the Committee of the Executive. Is this enough of a justification for withholding the documents/materials?
Was it a moral issue? Did it involve money or theft of property? Insubordination?
Now think of it in terms of a single identifiable entity such as a school division. What would be so terrible that nothing about the offense could ever be told to the school community and the citizens?
Think about it.