The county has come under scrutiny after a woman who took a photo during a meeting Tuesday was asked to turn over or delete the image and then was escorted from the room by a sheriff’s deputy while the meeting continued behind closed doors.
“This was not right,” said Scott K. York (I-At Large), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. “The only reason one would object to someone coming in and taking pictures is because you’re concerned about the decisions you’re making.”
Beverly Bradford, a Lansdowne resident who freelances for Patch but was not on assignment at the meeting, said she attended the meeting out of personal curiosity and snapped a picture of a board member.
Among the items under consideration by the BOE was a request to reduce the tax assessment on the National Conference Center. The county has entered into a purchasing agreement for a portion of the NCC site where it plans to build one of Ashburn’s next high schools.
Bradford said she complied with the request to stop recording and taking pictures, but objected by citing the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. At that point, according to Bradford and other witnesses in the room, a deputy arrived.
Bradford said she attempted to hand over her equipment and purse to the deputy at which point she was asked to step outside to discuss the matter further. She first objected, stating she needed to hear the meeting. However, she relented, feeling she had little choice. Bradford described an intimidating scene with her sitting while BOE Chairman Scott Littner and the deputy stood over her and interrogated her.
Several phone numbers listed online for BOE Chairman Scott Littner were out of service. An e-mail seeking comment was sent to an address listed as a general contact for the BOE, but was not returned as of this posting.
The deputy told BOE members that he could not force Bradford to obey their commands to turn over or delete the information and then escorted her from the room.
Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, said Bradford voluntarily accompanied the deputy out of the meeting room. “The Sheriff’s Deputy ultimately took no further actions regarding the recordings or photographs taken during the meeting,” Troxell wrote in an email.
Bradford said the deputy was very polite to her as they spoke in the hallway, despite preventing her from attending a portion of the meeting that she personally wanted to hear.
“I live next to the NCC, but I am not for or against the sale of it,” Bradford said. “I don’t have a strong opinion about the proposal to put a high school there.”
After being told she needed advance permission to record or photograph the meeting—a requirement in the BOE bylaws that appears to violate FOIA—she said she had notified the county’s liaison to the BOE that she intended to record the meeting and no concerns were raised.
“I did inform the admin at 11:10 a.m. that I would attend to cover the meeting,” Bradford said. “She did not stipulate that I needed to ask for permission.”
York said the county administrator – who was called to the meeting during the incident and was briefed – told him Bradford was not disruptive, but simply objected and stood her ground. Other witnesses who were in the room confirmed that observation.
The BOE’s own administrative procedures grant residents the right to photograph or record meetings: “Any person seeking to photograph, film, record, or otherwise reproduce a portion of a BOE meeting required to be open may do so, as long as the placement of the equipment does not interfere with the meeting,” the procedures read.
However, the bylaws go on to say “The BOE must be notified prior to the commencement of photographing, filming recording or other reproduction of any portion of a meeting.”
Those bylaws seem to overstep state law. The Board of Equalization qualifies as a public body subject to the rules Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, according a 1984 opinion from the Virginia Attorney General as well as a document on the state’s FOIA Advisory Council website.
Referencing those opinions, Alan Gernhardt, an attorney with the FOIA Advisory Council, said his reading is that the BOE cannot escape the FOIA rules for public bodies. “They’re a public body,” he said.
Bradford said it’s common for news media and residents to use digital note-taking tools and it’s shouldn’t be necessary to have such a rule. “In the present day it should not be necessary to notify separately that one will be using digital devices to do news coverage,” Bradford said. ”That is a given.”
The incident raises questions about whether the BOE is properly recording its meetings and taking minutes as the Board of Supervisors directed its members to do several years ago. Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Blue Ridge) initially raised the subject because the BOE was not listing how votes were cast for its decisions and the reasoning for those decisions was unclear to Burton, based on the minutes of the meeting.
However, it appears the BOE never began recording its meetings. The Board of Supervisors has the option of taking away the BOE’s space and staff, but has not pursued the issue. York said County Administrator Tim Hemstreet would require the BOE to record its meetings in the future.
Witnesses in the room Tuesday said the board had attempted to close the meeting to the public prior to voting on at least one item.
“It's a troubling incident, to say the least,” said Supervisor Stevens Miller (D-Dulles). “The county attorney is looking into the legal questions, but I feel that transparency should be the policy.”
“This has been a problem,” said Leesburg Supervisor Kelly Burk (D). “They think they can meet without notes or votes recorded.”
Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling), who has in the past objected to scrutiny of every resident who volunteers on a board, said the meetings should be open, but did not respond regarding photography or audio recordings.
“I think these meetings by the BOE should conform with the public policy of the county building, that is only public meetings can be conducted in the building unless they involve legal or personnel issues,” he said via email. “Once the legal issues are voted on in ‘executive session’ they should be required to reopen the meeting and then take a vote publicly, just like the board of supervisors does, or vote on a statement that states ‘no action was taken.’”
Catoctin Supervisor Sally R. Kurtz (D) said it may be time for the board of supervisors to revisit the issue.