Plaintiffs are asking Circuit Court Judge Dennis Smith to reconsider his decision to dismiss their suit against the five Democrats on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors for a public forum they attended in May.
Alan Gloss, one of three petitioners in the motion to reconsider, told InsideNoVa that the judge used too narrow a definition of what would constitute a public meeting. He also said that even though the Board’s five Democrats did not organize the meeting and largely showed up independently to hear from distraught community members after the killing of George Floyd, they should be considered organizers of the forum because it was organized by the Chief of Police and he reports to them.
“The overwhelming error is the judge failed to look at the statute in plain language and imposed an insurmountable bar when he looked at potential for the FOIA law to go astray," Gloss said in an email.
Gloss said the plaintiffs plan to appeal the decision if Smith denies their motion to reconsider his ruling.
The suit was the result of an emergency May 31 community meeting arranged by Barry Barnard, then the Prince William police chief, and the current chief, Jarad Phelps. He had tasked Rev. Cozy Bailey, the head of the local NAACP chapter and husband to Potomac District Supervisor Andrea Bailey, with organizing a public forum to discuss police actions the night before, when tear gas had been deployed against protesters just outside Manassas and police officers were injured.
The Board’s five Democrats wound up attending the meeting, they testified, to hear from the community, not conduct Board of Supervisors business. Only two actually coordinated their attendance, they testified last week. The rest heard about it through other channels.
“The evidence is overwhelming that this is an ad hoc thing thrown together by the chief,” said Julia Judkins, the attorney for Board of County Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler. “And the chief didn’t invite any of the board members. … My client didn’t have any idea what was going to happen at the … meeting.”
Gloss and his attorney, Christopher Kachouroff, argued that the meeting violated the state’s open meeting rules, which stipulate that public notice must be given in advance of any meeting where three or more members of a governing body are present and government business is discussed or “transacted,” and that any such meeting would be subject to Freedom of Information Act laws.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the Democrats on the board hatched the plan to deliberately exclude Republican supervisors from the meeting so that they could pressure the police to stop using CS gas “without interference” from the Republicans. According to their testimony, the supervisors who did attend the forum hardly spoke at all and it was open to the public.
Attorneys for the five Democrats on the board argued that what took place wasn’t a board meeting at all, saying that any supervisors in attendance came independently of one another to hear from community members and leaders in the same way the Prince William police officials sought to do. The meeting was open to the public, and nobody would have been excluded.
“Nobody made a concerted effort to huddle up five Democrats or huddle up five members of the board to talk about policy … or board business,” said Kenneth Bynum, the attorney for Supervisor Victor Angry.
Judge Dennis Smith agreed that there was no evidence of that and granted the defense’s motion to strike the lawsuit. He implied that if the plaintiffs' definition of a board meeting were applied universally, representatives would be seriously limited in the kinds of forums they could attend to hear from community members.