WINCHESTER — The person who filed a petition challenging the openness of Winchester’s City Council meetings agreed on Monday to drop the case after the city’s attorney acknowledged that mistakes were made.
“We were doing it wrong,” Melissa G. Michelsen, an attorney with the law firm Litten and Sipe who represents Winchester’s legal interests, told Judge Amy B. Tisinger during a hearing Monday afternoon in Winchester General District Court. “Mistakes were made.”
The case against the city was filed last week by Danielle Bostick, Winchester’s Republican candidate for mayor this fall.
“I was concerned about the pattern,” Bostick said, referring to a series of incidents that compelled her to take legal action against the city.
Bostick’s petition noted that City Council had met in closed session on three occasions — June 9, July 14 and July 28 — without allowing citizens to witness the mandatory public votes that were cast before and after each session, a violation of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Additionally, she objected to how citizens have not been allowed to address council directly since mid-March, when Rouss City Hall closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. Council still accepted written comments from citizens, but those comments were never read aloud during meetings and work sessions that were conducted via videoconference.
“We have not lived up to the full spirit” of Virginia’s FOIA regulations, Michelsen admitted in court.
But the city took measures to correct the mistakes prior to Monday’s hearing. Starting with tonight’s City Council meeting and work session, citizens will now be able to address the panel directly during its virtual meetings, and officials have vowed that all open meetings conducted before and after closed sessions will be shared with the public.
“Sounds like you’ve made some real diligent efforts to go forward,” Tisinger told Michelsen and interim City Manager Mary Beth Price, the only two city officials who attended Monday’s hearing.
Prior to the hearing, Michelsen said she had been in contact with Bostick to see if the situation could be resolved without the court’s intervention.
“We’ve had very cordial and good communications,” Michelsen said.
Bostick told Michelsen she would be willing to drop the case if the city acknowledged its mistakes and vowed to do better in the future, which it did on Monday.
Michelsen attributed the recent meeting issues to Winchester’s Innovation and Information Services Department — commonly referred to as Information Technology, or I.T.
“I.T. had set it up in such a way that open access wasn’t possible,” she told Tisinger.
Those problems were rectified last week, Michelsen said. Council’s meeting agendas now include extensive instructions for how citizens can participate in virtual meetings, and all open meetings held before and after closed-door sessions will now be streamed online.
Tisinger, who said she has been involved in just three FOIA cases during her 12 years on the bench, commended Michelsen and Bostick for working together to resolve the situation without a trial.
Prior to formally dismissing the case, Tisinger also advised Bostick that she has the option to refile her petition if the city fails to live up to its promises.
Bostick is challenging incumbent Democrat Mayor David Smith for a four-year term in the Nov. 3 election.