SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – For the second time in less than two years, a judge has found the Suffolk school board violated state law aimed at ensuring transparency and accountability in government.
Last week, Justice Matt Glassman ruled that when the board of trustees retired on July 22, 2021 at the College and Career Academy in Pruden, it violated open meeting requirements under the Freedom of Information Act. (FOIA) by forbidding citizens from observing the withdraw from the room.
The lawsuit was brought by former school board candidate and Suffolk resident Dr Deborah Wahlstrom, whose withdrawal from the meeting at the hands of Suffolk policeman Glassman was deemed “shameful.”
This is the second FOIA-related decision against the board since July 2020. Glassman said “something has to change.”
Virginia FOIA states in the first paragraph âevery meeting is open to the publicâ¦ unless an exemption is properly claimedâ.
Wahlstrom claimed her rights were violated when she sat in the retreat room and was told by school board president Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck and Superintendent John Gordon III to leave .
In the police body camera video obtained by 10 On Your Side, Gordon can be heard telling an officer who arrives “because of the pandemic, the president doesn’t want outside people inside”.
He pointed out that a live broadcast of the meeting had been set up in a separate part of the building so that the public could see what was happening in the retreat location.
âDr. Wahlstrom, who is an enemy of the school division, refuses to leave. Gordon then told the officer in the body camera video. He added that Wahlstrom was no longer welcome there either. .
The officer could be seen telling Wahlstrom that Brooks-Buck and Gordon “don’t want you here”.
Wahlstrom asked the officer if she was aware of the law on open meetings.
She replied, âI don’t care, I don’t care. They have authority over the school. If you stay, you will be charged with trespassing.
BELOW: Body camera footage from the Suffolk School Board Retreat.
Glassman did not accept the COVID-19 argument, saying there was no evidence the school board was taking precautions.
“It is shameful that a member or citizen has been threatened with arrest for attempting to assert their rights to be there,” Glassman said in court. âThe point of FOIA is not to find out how many chairs there are in the room. It’s about making sure there are enough chairs, and here there were none.
Wahlstrom’s attorney Kevin Martingayle tried the previous FOIA case where another judge ruled in favor of Complaints from school board member Sherri Story.
The board of directors has been fined over $ 25,000 for repeated violations relating to meeting announcements to closed meeting violations.
This matter is currently under appeal by the Suffolk School Board.
âI’ve never seen a loyal customer like the Suffolk City School Board,â Martingayle said. “They don’t seem to care much about what freedom of information law actually requiresâ¦ at some point it’s not an accident anymore.”
While Story and Walhstrom often find themselves in conflict with Brooks-Buck and the majority of the school board over policies, Martingayle is no excuse for breaking the law.
The entire board was ordered to read Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act following the loss of the first lawsuit, in addition to taking FOIA training.
Further, the judge’s order stated that “members of the Suffolk School Board as a whole shall comply, in perpetuity, with all open and closed meeting requirements specified in the Virginia FOIA.”
Brooks-Buck reached by phone Monday also pointed a reporter from 10 On Your Side to school district spokesperson and school board attorney Wendell Walker.
Multiple requests from 10 By Your Side to the district spokesperson were not returned.
Glassman said in his ruling that “relying on a lawyer may not be enough in the future.”
Martingayle believes that a board whose sole purpose is to teach the next generation has lessons for itself.
âWhen you repeatedly deny that you did something wrong. So you are the problem. Not the law, not the people who are trying to enforce their rights. It is you, the public official, who have become the problem, âMartingayle said. “If they can’t get along, then you have to step aside.”