SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — For the second time in less than two years, a judge has found that the Suffolk School Board violated the state’s law meant to ensure transparency and accountability in government.
Last week, Judge Matt Glassman ruled that when the board held its retreat on July 22, 2021 at the College and Career Academy at Pruden, it violated the open meeting requirements under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) when it barred citizens from observing the retreat from in the room.
The suit was brought by former school board candidate and Suffolk resident Dr. Deborah Wahlstrom, whose removal from the meeting at the hands of a Suffolk police officer Glassman concluded as “shameful.”
It’s the second FOIA-related ruling against the board since July 2020. Glassman said, “something needs to change.”
The Virginia FOIA law states in the first paragraph “every meeting shall be open to the public … unless an exemption is properly invoked.”
Wahlstrom claimed her rights were violated when she sat down in the room where the retreat was occurring and was told to leave by School Board Chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck and Superintendent John Gordon III.
In police body camera video obtained by 10 On Your Side, Gordon can be heard telling an arriving officer “because of the pandemic, the chair doesn’t want outside folks in there.”
He pointed out that a live stream of the meeting had been set up in a separate part of the building for the public to view what was happening in the retreat venue.
“Dr. Wahlstrom, who is an enemy of the school division, is refusing to leave.” Gordon proceeded to tell the officer in the body camera video. He added Wahlstrom wasn’t welcome there anymore, either.
The officer could be seen telling Wahlstrom that Brooks-Buck and Gordon “don’t want you here.”
Wahlstrom asked the officer if she is familiar with open meeting law.
She responded with, “I do not care, I do not care. They have authority over the school. If you stay, you’ll be charged with trespassing.”
BELOW: Body camera footage from Suffolk School Board retreat.
Glassman didn’t buy the COVID-19 argument, saying there was no evidence the school board was taking any precautions.
“It’s shameful that a member or a citizen was threatened with arrest for trying to assert her rights to be in that place,” Glassman said in court. “The point of FOIA is not about how many chairs are in the room. It’s about making sure that there are enough chairs, and here, there were zero.”
Wahlstrom’s attorney, Kevin Martingayle, tried the previous FOIA case where a different judge ruled in the favor of School Board Member Sherri Story’s complaints.
The board was ordered to pay more than $25,000 in attorneys fees for repeated violations concerning meeting advertisements to closed meeting violations.
That case is currently being appealed by the Suffolk School Board.
“I’ve never seen a repeat customer quite like the Suffolk City School Board,” Martingayle said. “They don’t seem to care very much about what the freedom of information act actually requires … at some point, it’s not an accident anymore.”
While Story and Walhstrom often find themselves clashing with Brooks-Buck and the majority of the school board over policies, Martingayle that is no excuse to break the law.
The entire board was ordered to read Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act as a result of losing the first lawsuit, in addition to taking FOIA training.
In addition, the judge’s order stated that “the members of the Suffolk School Board as a whole, shall comply, in perpetuity, with all open and closed meeting requirements specified in the Virginia FOIA.”
Brooks-Buck reached by phone Monday also pointed a 10 On Your Side reporter in the direction of the school district spokesperson and School Board attorney Wendell Walker.
Multiple requests 10 On Your Side made to the district spokesperson were not returned.
Glassman in his ruling said “relying on counsel may not be enough in the future.”
Martingayle thinks a board whose sole focus is supposed to be about teaching the next generation, has some lessons to learn itself.
“When you repeatedly deny that you’ve done anything wrong. Then you’re the problem. Not the law, not the people trying to enforce their rights. It’s you, the public official, that has become the problem,” Martingayle said. “If they can’t get it together, then you have to get out of the way.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the purpose of the School Board’s monetary payments from the first lawsuit. WAVY-TV regrets the error.