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FOIA lawsuit filed over Marshall resignation documents

FOIA lawsuit filed over Marshall resignation documents

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A Richmond activist has sued the city to try to force the release of documents related to the recent departure of former chief administrative officer Byron C. Marshall.

Carol A.O. Wolf, a former member of the Richmond School Board, filed the lawsuit Monday in Richmond Circuit Court. The suit argues that city officials improperly rejected Wolf’s request for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

“If they want our money, they need to trust us with the truth,” Wolf said in an interview.

The lawsuit seeks the release of Marshall’s separation agreement, the confidentiality agreements signed by some City Council members and the application materials Marshall submitted to the city before he was hired in 2009.

City officials have refused to release those documents, citing public-records exemptions related to personnel records and attorney-client privilege.

Wolf’s lawsuit argues that those exemptions don’t apply to the documents sought.

“The city’s willful decision to conceal the confidentiality agreements, separation agreement, résumé and other information, and to withhold the documents from production is not undertaken in good faith or for any proper purpose,” the lawsuit states.

City officials did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

The city rejected most of a FOIA request submitted by Wolf on Sept. 15, three days after Marshall’s resignation, according to a copy of an email exchange attached to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks the court to instruct the city to produce the records, award a judgment to cover Wolf’s costs and attorney’s fees, and award penalties against the officials responsible for denying the request.

Wolf’s attorney is Steven S. Biss, who has an office in Charlottesville but has been involved in several Richmond lawsuits. Biss was also the attorney for 19 Shockoe Bottom businesses that sued the city for $31.65 million in 2009, contending that the city’s neglect of its sewer system caused flood damage from the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston. A judge killed that lawsuit in 2012. However, Biss won a $200,000 settlement in 2008 from a similar flood-damage suit against the city by a Battery Park couple.

The city has wide discretion in defining personnel records and choosing what to release and what to withhold. The legalities surrounding the confidentiality agreements are more uncertain.

Four council members have not signed the agreement, which was required in order to be briefed on Marshall’s departure.

In his September newsletter circulated Tuesday, 1st District Councilman Jonathan T. Baliles called the secrecy surrounding the resignation “highly unusual.” The required confidentiality agreement, Baliles wrote, is “even more unusual.”

“It is certainly an anathema to open and transparent government,” the Baliles’ newsletter states. “It is unlikely the details will remain a secret forever, and council is looking at ways to shed some sunlight into the situation.”

The other council members who have not signed the agreement are Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell, 8th District; Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, 5th District; and Councilman Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District.

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