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Christiansburg councilwoman's FOIA case against colleagues dismissed

Christiansburg councilwoman's FOIA case against colleagues dismissed


CHRISTIANSBURG — A Freedom of Information Act case that Councilwoman Johana Hicks brought against several town officials has been dismissed in Montgomery County General District Court.

The case, dismissed late last week, was over a claim from Hicks that the town had not provided the councilwoman the necessary evidence to use in her defense against a measure to reprimand her last month.

The reprimand, which opens the door to more serious disciplinary measures in the future, was passed by the Town Council in response to conduct from Hicks that several of her colleagues deemed inappropriate and said undermined the public’s trust and confidence in town government.

The specific issues provided for the reprimand included what a majority of the county viewed as problematic comments expressed by Hicks about a local state delegate, a senior town official and the president of the nonprofit Downtown Christiansburg Inc.

Hicks, however, argued the town failed to provide her sufficient information in a timely manner before the June 8 reprimand vote.

Hicks submitted a FOIA request by email six days before the reprimand vote, asking what evidence members of town council “and/or its investigative” had considered in connection with the upcoming reprimand, according to court documents.

“Hicks asked for these documents in order to defend herself against the bald and unfounded charges in the resolution of reprimand,” a general district court petition reads. “Had the town council properly produced documents responsive to the [June 2] request within five days of receipt in accordance with [Virginia law], Hicks would have been prepared to defend herself in the June 8, 2021 public hearing.”

The petition sought the production of documents and information pertaining to the reprimand and, “to the extent the court finds respondents … violated” Virginia code willfully, order they pay a civil penalty of no less than $500 and no more than $2,000.

The respondents listed were Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber and Town Manager Randy Wingfield.

This week, Wingfield released this statement: "As clarification, our position was that the request was not a valid FOIA request because it did not identify the records sought with reasonable specificity. The Judge agreed. Also, FOIA does require a response to a valid FOIA request within 5 days, but within 5 business days. In this case, that period would have ended after the June 8, 2021 meeting had the request been valid."

Hicks said Monday she plans to meet with her attorney to determine what actions they would take next. Hicks’ petition listed her lawyer as Daniel R. Sullivan, who’s with Glenn, Feldmann, Darby & Goodlatte of Roanoke.

“There should … be no news to report at the moment,” she wrote in an email.

Barber described the ordeal as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“I never was concerned anyway. I think it was a bogus suit,” the mayor said Monday. “And it was soundly proven in court that we did nothing wrong.”

Documents for the case included several emails exchanged between Hicks and other town officials on the matter.

Recently hired Christiansburg town spokeswoman Christina Edney wrote to Hicks in a June 23 email that the resolution was the only document received by the locality in regards to the reprimand measure.

“In addition, the request for ‘evidence’ would need to be specified as to what document you are requesting, as FOIA applies to requests with reasonable specificity,” Edney wrote. “Evidence can be subjective and clarification would be needed.”

Edney, in that email, further cited a part of the state’s public records law, writing that a public records request “shall identify the requested records with reasonable specificity” and that no public body is required to create a new record if the record does not already exist.

Hicks, in an email to Edney and other town officials later that day, wrote that her request was as specific as it gets. The councilwoman listed emails, phone messages, online and offline conversations as examples of evidence.

“Evidence of the code of ethics and reprimand and charges that they voted on is very specific,” Hicks wrote. “There were four and then five charges with no evidence saying that I did or said those things.”

One of the incidents identified in the recent reprimand measure concerned a claim from Hicks that state Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg, had told her during a past discussion that bonds of over $10 million need to be put on the ballot, a point several town council members said is untrue.

The town is set to borrow $9.3 million to help pay for a multi-purpose park off of Peppers Ferry Road, a project Hicks has been a critic of and voted against. Council members balked at suggestions they deliberately kept the debt amount below $10 million to avoid letting voters decide the issue.

Rush wrote in an email that he didn’t recall a conversation with any council member about specific project funding issues. Hicks, however, maintained there was a conversation and a friend of the councilwoman told council last month she heard the conversation in question.

Among the social media activity Hicks’ colleagues raised concerns about was a Facebook comment in which she wrote that she had contacted the town’s finance director Valerie Tweedie “and specifically asked if I vote for this budget amendment [which included the park] and her response was no.”

Town council members during debates over those Facebook comments raised concerns about Hicks making deliberately untrue allegations about the work of a top town official. Hicks told her colleagues during the back and forth that the finance director never told her how to vote, and the councilwoman argued her online comment was taken out of context and was part of a greater thread.

Regarding the Downtown Christiansburg Inc. matter, Barber previously said Hicks leaned on a financial issue in the town of Pulaski to oppose providing funds to DCI. The issue particularly involved DCI President Justin Sanders, who happened to be a planner with Pulaski around the time the locality was going through some financial challenges.

Hicks argues she only shared information about the financial issue and raised concerns over funding to DCI in light of the events in Pulaski. The reprimand, however, stated her comments amounted to an allegation “absent merit” that a member of DCI had engaged in financial malfeasance with taxpayer dollars.

Barber has stressed Sanders had nothing to do with any of those budget-related issues in Pulaski as he would have had no control or access to those funds.

The recent legal clash adds another page to what has been a tumultuous past year for town council.

“Certainly not been the easiest in my position,” Barber said. “I guess it comes with the territory, although it’s uncharted territory. I don’t think we’ve ever been like this before.”

Hicks was elected in 2019 after running on a campaign that promised to challenge the convention of town government. She is running for mayor this year, a contest that will pit her against Barber and fellow Councilman Sam Bishop.

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