BERRYVILLE — A Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by Mayor Patricia Dickinson has baffled other Town Council members.
During last Tuesday’s council meeting, Dickinson said she submitted the request to Town Manager Keith Dalton to get as much information as possible about a plaque being developed to recognize community Veterans of the Year.
Councilwoman Diane Harrison told Dickinson “it seemed kind of extreme” that a town official would submit a FOIA request instead of just asking Dalton or another administrator for the information, as is the usual practice.
In an interview after the meeting, Dalton said he would have given Dickinson any information she wanted, provided he had it. He said that in responding to her FOIA request, he did not withhold any information he thought was relevant.
The plaque, which has not been made or purchased, is courtesy of the World War I Centennial Committee and has been discussed periodically since late last year. Dickinson basically established the committee, which coordinated last year’s local activities commemorating the war’s 100th anniversary. The committee has since disbanded.
The Berryville Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is holding “just over $400” to pay for the plaque, Dickinson said in a phone interview.
After it is made, the plaque will be installed in an atrium overlooking the veterans memorial at the Berryville-Clarke County Government Center on Chalmers Court, Dalton said.
Dickinson said she submitted her request via her town email account on May 16 so her personal account would not be open to scrutiny under FOIA laws. She said she submitted it because she believed she would get “broader information” about the plaque’s status than if she had just asked for the details.
“I wanted the whole timeline of events,” she said, to find out why it was taking so long to get the plaque installed.
She added that she wanted to figure out whether she could have handled things differently.
But “it seemed to be the opinion of the council” that Dickinson did not need to file a FOIA request to get the information, Dalton said based on comments he heard during the meeting.
Dickinson should have just asked for the information, Harrison said. Councilwoman Donna Marie McDonald agreed.
“Had it been me, I would have come to Keith. I would have asked him what I needed to ask him, and he would have helped me,” McDonald said.
Ultimately, Dickinson said she felt she got all of the information she needed.
She has enough information now, she said, to tell the VFW that it can proceed in buying the plaque and having it made.
Dickinson said she believes her FOIA request was “pretty irrelevant.” The main concern, she said, is whether the town can do better in handling such requests.
For example, in prepared remarks to the council, she suggested the appointment of a FOIA officer who is not the town manager.
Yet the town has a FOIA officer.
State code dictates that localities designate a specific official as being their FOIA officer through whom the public can request records and information. Berryville’s town clerk traditionally has served in that role. But the clerk’s position was vacant until last week, when a new one started work. Dalton generally handled the clerk’s duties in the interim.
Dickinson said she submitted her request through Dalton because there was no permanent clerk at the time.
Reading from her prepared remarks, Dickinson said that after she submitted her request, several of her colleagues on the council raised concerns about it.
Nine pages of emails concerning the request — mostly among Dickinson and Dalton, with others from Town Recorder Jay Arnold and Harrison — were included in the meeting’s agenda packet.
The other council members’ concerns prompted Dickinson to contact the state’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council. Based on its response, she concluded that it was not inappropriate for her to file a FOIA request via her town email address.
“FOIA does not have any special provisions for Town Council members or other local elected officials, although due to their positions, they likely will have access to records as members that might be withheld from the general public,” the response read. It went on to say that “nothing in FOIA establishes additional, separate, or different rights for elected officials or public employees ... FOIA does not address requests made in any other capacity.”
Dickinson questioned whether her FOIA request could be construed as a violation of a provision of the town’s code that states “neither the town council nor any member thereof shall give orders, either publicly or privately, to any subordinate of the town manager.” A council member could be charged with a misdemeanor for doing that, the code shows.
Based on that provision, she said that “because I don’t think we specifically appointed the town manager to be our FOIA officer, a role which he has assumed out of default (due to the lack of a town clerk), giving anyone other than the designated FOIA officer a request could constitute a violation of town code.”
Although he serves as the town’s chief executive officer, the town manager is hired by — and therefore an employee of — the town council, not the town itself, Berryville’s charter shows.
Speaking to the town manager is not a violation of code, Arnold said.
“We’re a small town. We have only a small number of employees,” and sometimes the town manager must assume duties when nobody else is available to do them, Harrison said.
Dalton is “an example of a town manager wearing a lot of hats,” said Councilwoman Kara Rodriguez.
By having to spend time responding to a FOIA request, Dalton was not able to spend time on matters that fall under his regular responsibilities, such as finding ways to correct stormwater drainage problems and determining appropriate utility rates, council members said.
Councilwoman Erecka Gibson maintained that because of those responsibilities, Dickinson’s request was ill-timed, as the new town clerk had not started his job.
“I struggle with you asking for something when you knew we didn’t have a town clerk,” she told the mayor. As a result, “other administrative things on Keith’s plate are probably piling up. You’re just adding to an already difficult situation.”
“I can’t imagine it (her request) was important enough (for Dalton) to compile all that history” regarding the plaque at this particular time, Gibson said.