The city of Charlottesville did not violate the law when it held an impromptu meeting and voted to remove a controversial statue but did violate the Freedom of Information Act when it neglected to timely respond to a request from a political candidate, ruled a judge Wednesday.
Philip Hamilton, a Republican candidate seeking Virginia’s 57th House of Delegates seat, filed the petition last month, arguing that the city and City Council violated FOIA law by giving less than five hours’ notice of a hearing in which they voted to remove a controversial statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea. Hamilton also argued the city violated FOIA law by not providing documents he requested in a July 17 email to the City Councilors and staff.
The special meeting was called on July 10, the same day two downtown Confederate statues were removed. At the time, City Manager Chip Boyles said the meeting was called because the removal of the Confederate statues went so smoothly and quickly that the crew would be able to remove the Lewis-Clark-Sacagawea statue as well with no additional funding required.
In spite of the brief 20-minute notice given for the meeting, various members of the public were able to give input prior the Council’s vote.
Despite being a Charlottesville General District Court matter, the hearing was held Wednesday in front of Judge Matthew Quatrara in Albemarle Circuit Court following the recusal of city Judge Andrew Sneathern.
The hearing, which had been delayed twice prior, lasted for more than two hours during which Quatrara patiently walked Hamilton step-by-step through the legal process, as the petitioner had opted to represent himself instead of hiring an attorney.
“This case is of great importance to the community at large,” Hamilton said during his opening statement. “I believe that instead of removing statues we should re-contextualize them or add more.”
Several of the arguments Hamilton attempted to make were quickly quashed as being irrelevant to the FOIA issue at hand, including a claim from the candidate that the Wednesday announcement from Mayor Nikuyah Walker that she was withdrawing as a city council candidate was related to his FOIA lawsuit. It remains unclear what led Hamilton to believe a connection existed, given Walker’s openly expressed frustrations with a number of city government issues completely unrelated to Hamilton or the statue in question.
Eight witnesses were called Wednesday to testify on Hamilton’s behalf but were left with little to say after the petitioner was repeatedly informed that his questions had to pertain only to his FOIA arguments. Of the eight witnesses called by Hamilton, only one lived in Charlottesville and only one of them had filed a FOIA request with the city prior. None had filed FOIA requests related to Lewis-Clark-Sacagawea statue.
After being informed he could call himself as a witness, Hamilton testified that he sent a letter to the City Councilors on July 17 in which he requested all documents relating to the decision to remove the statue. According to Hamilton, he never received a response.
City Attorney Lisa Robertson argued that Hamilton’s email subject line had not made his request explicit and that he had sent the email to several incorrect addresses. Robertson also asked Quatrara to strike the claim that the city had violated FOIA law with the July 10 meeting. Quatrara granted this request, citing the absence of the five-hour notice language within state code.
The crux of the city’s argument was that the councilors and Clerk of Council Kyna Thomas did not intentionally ignore Hamilton’s email. According to testimony from Thomas, during weeks where controversial decisions are made, councilors and city staff can receive hundreds of emails, making it difficult to know which ones are important.
“It’s very difficult to understand if one is not an elected official just how many emails are sent to these addresses on a daily basis,” Robertson said.
When Hamilton filed the petition on Aug. 20, Robertson said the councilors compiled responsive documents and a notice of this was provided to Hamilton. Thomas also testified that Hamilton was given notice of this at a Aug. 26 hearing, though the petitioner claimed he did not recall this.
Ultimately, Quatrara ruled that, though the evidence failed to show that the city willfully or knowingly ignored Hamilton’s FOIA request, it did fail to satisfy it in a timely manner.
However, Quatrara said he could do little to compensate Hamilton, as it was inappropriate to award attorney’s fees in the absence of an attorney and because Hamilton had failed to present any evidence about cost, including the petition’s filing fee.
In the absence of any financial evidence, Quatrara ordered the city of Charlottesville to pay Hamilton $1 in nominal damages. Both parties have 10 days to appeal the decision.