Pittsylvania County has been in the news lately, after the county Agricultural Development Board was confirmed as having broken the law in regards to FOIA and open meetings.
This is really the tip of a large iceberg. What I found when I looked at the online records of this county might surprise you, but to me, it’s another day looking at a Virginia jurisdiction that is allowed to flaunt and disregard this law. Partially through ignorance of the law by the county attorneys in this state, the FOIA law is even less understood by the Judiciary.
This case is the second example I am personally aware of where the judge in the case opined that the law had been broken, but that they would not punish anyone, “….because the law is complicated and they didn’t understand it….”
In a case I wrote about in an article from 2011, a Westmoreland court case was decided for the plaintiffs, but there was no punishment due to the judge claiming the county administrator and supervisors didn’t know the law. The very law itself states that any appointed or elected official will receive a copy of the law and understand it within two weeks of their appointment or taking office.
Any person elected, reelected, appointed or reappointed to any body not excepted from this chapter shall (i) be furnished by the public body’s administrator or legal counsel with a copy of this chapter within two weeks following election, reelection, appointment or reappointment and (ii) read and become familiar with the provisions of this chapter.
(1976, c. 467, § 2.1-341.1; 1999, cc. 703, 726; 2001, c. 844; 2002, c. 393.)
So we see the legal counsel of the county should and probably does know this. County Attorneys are paid handsomely, usually to keep the county out of trouble.
In this case, it looks as though the responsibility for knowing the law, which rested with that county attorney, was abrogated in favor of trying to keep the county officials from paying a statutory fine.
If county attorneys, judges and other court officials don’t know the law, and county officials are right there with them, then this system is broken. It would be like me saying to a judge that I didn’t want to haul that junk car away, because I didn’t know it was illegal to store it indefinitely in my yard.
Until the judiciary and the county attorneys follow and enforce the law, this junk car will be staying in the yard. Unfortunately, that means more of government in the Commonwealth will be secret and will be excused as ignorance of the law.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some road bonds to sell and some state business to attend to. Don’t mind the smoky backroom, it’s alive and well.