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Some Stafford parents claim that three School Board members violated the state Freedom of Information Act by holding secret meetings and not providing all of their e-mails for public view.
The Support Our Schools Political Action Committee made those claims in a lawsuit filed yesterday in Stafford General District Court. Patricia Joshi, a lawyer and member of that group, will represent the PAC.
Her document points to e-mails between School Board members Robert Belman, Nanette Kidby and Doreen Phillips, and Supervisors Paul Milde and Mark Dudenhefer.
Support Our Schools members say they obtained those exchanges, which are public record, a few months ago for insight into the officials' discussions about the fiscal year 2007 school funding and 2006 tax rate.
They found messages that suggest all five officials met twice in February to discuss the county budget, according to court documents. And some officials provided e-mails that the others did not.
Virginia Freedom of Information laws say that officials of the same body cannot discuss public business in groups of three or more without announcing it as a public meeting. Laws also require public officials to keep all of their e-mail pertaining to county business and produce the documents when asked.
Joshi has asked the court to fine them $3,000 each, plus attorney's fees and court costs. She also wants the judge to prohibit future secret meetings, require officials to hand over all of their e-mails, and order them to preserve messages from now on. The case will be heard at 9 a.m. June 26.
Phillips did not return phone calls yesterday. The other board members said the meetings never happened.
Belman said he has met with individual county officials and constituents. But he said he did not meet with anyone illegally. He also said he provided all of the e-mails he kept in his records, but many had been deleted.
Kidby said she was "puzzled" because no such meetings took place. She declined to comment further, saying she wanted to read the lawsuit first.
Milde and Dudenhefer tell the same story. They describe the Support Our Schools FOIA requests and lawsuit as "a witchhunt" and "harassment."
"It's very frustrating for me because all I wanted to do was make a difference and actually get something done. And this has been nothing but vindictive personal attacks," Dudenhefer said. "They didn't get what they wanted and this is their reaction and the state legislators gave them the tools to do it."
Milde said he thinks Support Our Schools members are retaliating because the supervisors set the 2006 real-estate tax rate at 63 cents, rather than the 68 cents they wanted. The higher rate would have allocated $5.5 million more to the schools.
"Why would they waste their time?" Milde said. "Why can't they put their efforts toward something constructive?"
But Joshi said the e-mail documents prove her efforts are well worth it.
"This has been very time consuming, stressful, and I wish we didn't have to do this," she said. "If we didn't do anything I would be saying the rest of my life, 'I can't believe we didn't tell people what was going on.'"
A Feb. 16 e-mail in the exhibit section of the lawsuit was sent by Belman to the other five officials and copied to three Republican Party activists. It says, "All, If we want to meet together (which is a good idea) to discuss budget we can this Saturday morning. Doreen (I think) has offered her office for this meeting."
The message asks people to reply if they are available to meet. The only response included in the filing is from Dudenhefer, who said he would be out of town but might be available for a conference call.
Another e-mail from Belman, sent March 6 to the same five officials makes reference to a meeting held at Dudenhefer's house.
Support Our Schools members argue that Belman, Kidby and Phillips withheld e-mails that have more details about these meetings and other topics. They say they can prove that because the supervisors provided e-mails that the board members did not.
"Closed government is not good government in my view. It's not the government we read about in school," said Alicia Knight, a Support Our Schools member. "Thank God that members of the public have tools like this to let the sun shine in."
School Board members and supervisors say the recent Freedom of Information requests have changed the way they do business. Some no longer respond to e-mails dealing with county issues. Those who need to talk to them must now call or meet them in person.
"They've made it to where we are less efficient," Dudenhefer said. "If that's their goal, then they've succeeded."
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