Letter to the Editor: A Fight to the Draw

A FIGHT TO THE DRAW: POWER & MONEY PREVAIL AGAIN
By George Archibald
It was my disappointment that a battle to obtain Clarke County public documents about our community government’s policy deliberations on spending and taxes in the recent budget process, while successful, was fought to a draw in Clarke County Circuit Court on Wednesday, June 13, as county leaders resisted vigorously at my ultimate expense.
County attorney Robert T. Mitchell, Jr. of the Winchester law firm of Hall Monahan Engle Mahan & Mitchell was the big winner, as he was paid an hourly rate of $200 to the tune of almost $10,000 in total fees at taxpayers expense to fight my request for release of the county budget documents under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) without charge to me.
My requests in March were for documents regarding public school surplus carryover funds of $247,227  that the School Board proposed in its Fiscal Year 2013 budget to use as a down-payment for new computer software to upgrade the county’s outmoded information technology (IT) systems that presently don’t work well together.
As Clarke County elected  officials and staff  do government by email between meetings, an important part of my request was their policy communications, planning, and discussions behind the scenes, out of public view, by email to each other.  This is what they resisted giving up over many months until ordered to do so by the court.
Part of the documents provided were from a $25,000 contracted study last year by a Chicago group called the Government Finance Officers Association, which said Clarke County’s IT system was inefficient, caused inaccuracy, and wasted manhours and money.
It is ironic that I am being made to pay for pointing out that the county is wasting yet hundreds of thousands more dollars this year because the Board of Supervisors did not allocate the $247,227 to the so-called Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system because Supervisor John Staelin of Millwood objected and threw himself in the way of Chairman Michael Hobert’s proposal to invest in the ERP.
After I conceded the fight in court Wednesday, Chairman Hobert told me the ERP discussion will continue among the Board of Supervisors, so hope still remains that finance committee chairman Staelin’s roadblock will be overcome and the county’s IT system will be upgraded at some point sooner rather than later.  The GFOA study showed that the county would recoup its investment over time, so its senseless not to proceed with the recommended upgrade.
But there’s always someone who uses the argument of fiscal responsibility to block change that would end wasteful inefficiency in the way government works, giving conservative governance a bad name.
So in the name of fiscal responsibility the county ended up billing me a total of $617.53 for reimbursement of the time and effort expended by county staff to retrieve and produce the 2,643 pages of records and emails in response to my FOIA request, as ordered by Judge Wetsel, and I agreed to pay the money to settle the case.  Judge Wetsel said he thought the amount of the bill was reasonable.
So thanks to the staff heroes who did the work.  Here’s the list, with the billed amount for each person’s time. As usual, lower-paid clerks did most of the work while their highly-compensated managers’ time cost much more:
•  Laura Walburn, executive assistant:  13 hours, 50 minutes, $282.67;
•  David Ash, county administrator: 1 hour, 27 minutes, $97.17;
•  Thomas Judge, Joint Administrative Services director, 4 hours, 7 minutes, $206.46;
•  Gordon Russell, IT director, 40 minutes, $23.36;
•  Susanne Vaughn, Joint Administrative Services clerk, 30 minutes, $7.89.
I thank them for their service.
(For the record, the county’s  $617.53 bill amounts to almost half my total monthly Social Security income, so the powerful, rich government bureaucracy certainly prevailed over me again.)
George Archibald
Berryville, Virginia

Comments

  1. Mr Mister says:

    I’d rather see you pay the 10K and stop wasting tax payers monies in the future.

    • Another View says:

      FOIA is a law which is intended to bring transparency to government activities. There is nothing nefarious in citizens seeking information via FOIA. Moreover, by experience representing both sides, I know that government regularly seeks to avoid disclosure in response to citizen requests.

      I would suggest that Mr. Archibald is not the one wasting taxpayer monies.

      • Mr Mister says:

        It’s a shame that you get on here and rant about your tax money being wasted, but you give this guy a pass for the wasted $10K. What is up with that? I could think of better places these monies could have gone. Archibald is just fishing anyways. He was given the answers to the questions, even from this site before.

        • Another View says:

          HE DID NOT WASTE IT, the government did. George Archibald did not hire Bob Mitchell. George Archibald did not order the government to withhold information.

          I am not giving George Archibald a pass, and I have offered no opinion on the wisdom of his request for information. BUT, he possesses a statutory right to the information, and the government maintains an obligation to provide the information. And in this instance, as is so often the case, government is to blame.

          • jennifer says:

            not at my expense. if he wants someone to gather and copy information for him he can …. well pay for it himself, just as I would.

          • Another View says:

            It is not at your expense any more than your children are being educated at my expense through their attendance at public schools. You are a typical liberal in that you are all for government spending when it suits your purposes, and when it involves other people’s monies. Then, when someone like George Archibald tries to hold government accountable, all of a sudden you become a fiscal conservative. Only you are not, you are just reflexively protective of government. You are a liberal.

          • jennifer says:

            I am for government spending when it meets the needs of the whole, you are not. You are for government spending when it meets your individual needs or those of your friends, I am not. If you really want to define things in overly simplistic and narrow terms there is your liberal vs conservative or dem vs republican.

            If you look up the word liberal in the dictionary, I would be happy to wear that label if you wish. Funny, I don’t look down on conservatives either. How liberal of me.

          • Another View says:

            It does not meet the needs of the whole to tax some for the education of a few’s children. It does not meet the needs of the whole to tax some for the retirement of a few. It does not meet the needs of the whole to tax some for the medical care of a few. It does not meet the needs of the whole to tax some for the general necessities such as housing and food for a few. Yet you favor all these things. Hmmm. Perhaps your definition of the whole necessarily excludes those who must pay for these things.

            And I have never–NEVER EVER–advocated government spending for individual needs. And you cannot cite anywhere that I have done so. Because I do not believe in government spending in such a manner.

          • “It does not meet the needs of the whole to tax some for the education of a few’s children.”

            That is probably the single most ridiculous statement you’ve made in your long litany of rants against government spending and “individual liberty” and whatever else.

            There is ample evidence that proves that dollars spent on public education produce far more benefits than money spent on prison detention. You can’t have it both ways, sir – either money is spent on education when they are young, or far too often far more money is required when folks turn to a life of crime due to a lack of education or employable skills to be gainfully employed or whatever. Either way, the costs are far more than individuals can fully provide themselves; thus, the government provides the funds, by spreading the costs for those services across the entire populace.

            Providing a quality public education system for our children produces future grown-ups who (ideally) have the requisite skills to make it in the modern world, to be responsible adults, and to make a difference…and to make it so that those without the private means to go to some elite private academy can still gain access to the benefits of a good education.

            Your political, economic, and social Darwinism (dressed up as it is in uber-libertarian bunting) is a rather nasty way of seeing the world.

          • Another View says:

            It is absolutely not ridiculous. It makes perfect sense.

            Who are you to insist that I contribute monetarily to the education of your children? Why is that not your responsibility, and yours alone?

            Who are you to insist that children be subjected to government education? Why should I or anyone have to subsidize the government’s viewpoint (speech? indoctrination?)?

            And there is no causation between public education and prison incarceration. Are you claiming that all uneducated folks are destined for incarceration? Because if you are you are ignoring all those law abiding citizens who built this country out to the Pacific, all without the benefit of public education. And you are also ignoring the poor quality of public education. It seems that there is little difference between today’s public school graduate and dropout. Are the public school graduates’ destined for incarceration too?

            I am all for education. I am against government indoctrination.

          • “…you are ignoring all those law abiding citizens who built this country out to the Pacific, all without the benefit of public education.”

            Again with the ridiculous hyperbole, AV. Let’s see – westward expansion came about through individual initiative, to be sure: the folks clamoring after gold & furs, and the brothels, saloons, and other hives of scum and villainy that accompanied those rough men on their quest. But you glibly overlook the persecution of the several sovereign native tribes, through dubious or unenforced treaties or outright military force; you overlook the use of cheap immigrant labor forces (who had no opportunities to get a good education in this land where only propertied white men had real access to such things) who built things like the Transcontinental Railroad. Sure, the educated few, who had the money and whatall to fund those things, saw them built on the backs of the poor and uneducated who had no other real options at the time.

            “Government indoctrination” in the schools? You mean like the efforts in Texas and other places at injecting Creationism or other ideas into textbooks? Or, since when is encouraging respect for those different from you a bad thing?

            I will again, as I have in the past, agree with you that there are serious flaws with the current public education system – too much emphasis on rote memory and less on critical thinking; the belief that high-stakes testing is the panacea for a host of ills; education policies written by bureaucrats with no common sense or without any sort of real understanding of effective teaching; etc.

            I never said that a lack of education is the sole reason for incarceration, nor did I imply that all uneducated folks are merely destined for the hooscow. However, it has been proven time and again that a lack of education access is a contributing factor behind why a great many of those locked up are locked up. Dollars spent on education, on reaching at-risk youth, don’t have the whiz-bang payback of immediate and flashy results and so politicians like to get rid of them. “Look at me…I’m tough on crime…I built prisons.”

            Again, you and I (and quite a few folks, it seems) differ widely on thse views. You believe that only individuals should fund things for their own. I believe that, for those things which cost too much for individuals to adequately provide for themselves, it is rightfully the government’s place to step in and provide those services, like a free and appropriate public education (words found in Virginia’s own constitution). The benefits, to both the indiviuals and to the larger community as a whole, far outweigh the costs.

  2. jennifer says:

    He wasted taxpayer money by costing us (the taxpayers) legal fees trying to avoid paying for the information that he personally sought. Everything costs money and the public employees that you all hate to have “on the dole” had to be paid to produce the documents that he asked for. So what is ironic is that he expected us to pay the cost for his demands. Now he pays the $600. and we are stuck with a $10,000 legal bill.

    • Everyone is entitled to a certain amount of information from the government for free. I believe it’s 100 pages. Anything over that is billed to the requestor on a per page basis. If any bills are incurred, it’s because the governmnet entity fights to keep the info from the public.

      Personally, I don’t know why anything having to do with the taxpayer funded, public schools is withheld

  3. Another View says:

    There is a $10k legal bill because the government refused to turn over the information. Citizens have the right to certain information and the government is obligated to oblige. And as is typical, the government in this case fought tooth and nail to avoid its obligations.

  4. George Archibald says:

    I am grateful to all for their interest in this unfolding story and their comments, even Jennifer Welliver, former School Board member defeated by Jim Brinkmeier in the past election who’s on the liberal side politically and generally passionately critical of anyone who questions government spending, taxes, and policies, particularly the school division, as her comments above reflect.

    Today I filed a request in my FOIA case before Judge Wetsel that he clarify his final order by making an affirmative finding that respondent Clarke County violated the very requirements of § 2.2-3700(B) of the statute that “all parties and their officers and employees shall make reasonable efforts to reach an agreement with a requester concerning the production of the records requested.”

    In my Petition for Writ of Mandamus, I stated as the basis of my case: “Plaintiff has good cause for filing this petition in that Defendant’s counsel Robert T. Mitchell, Jr. of the law firm of Hall, Monahan, Engle, Mahan & Mitchell in a letter dated April 25, 2012, denied Plaintiff’s good faith effort to meet, discuss, and negotiate Defendant’s FOIA denials and ultimate belated demand for payment of $450.00 by Plaintiff before Defendant would process Plaintiff’s final request for compliance dated April 19, 2012.”

    The April 19 letter had requested all discussion documents, including emails between Clarke County Board of Supervisor members that resulted in their voting against Chairman Michael Hobert’s proposal to put county government and school division on a positive path to upgrading and properly integrating its outmoded computer software system, which a Government Finance Officers Association contracted study concluded a year ago was inefficient and wasteful of government manhours and money to the tune of tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly.

    My goal as a newspaper reporter was to get the story behind Supervisor John Staelin of Millwood’s lone effort to block the county computer upgrade called Enterprise Resource Plnning (ERP), which the GFOA study said wouyld pay for itself within about five years.

    My request to the court filed today is for Judge Wetsel to affirmatively rule that Clarke County attorney Mitchell in behalf of the government violated the law by refusing to have the negotiation meeting I requested prior to litigation, which the law as quoted above required him to do.

    So as the comments reflect, Mr. Mitchell, who is being paid $200 an hour to represent the county as their attorney, himself benefited by not having the settlement meeting and prolonging this FOIA case in the court buy refusing to resolve it through negotiation as the law itself required him to do.

    • Another View says:

      Bob Mitchell is not required to negotiate with you. The government is required to negotiate with you. Big difference.

  5. jennifer says:

    “jennifer welliver…..who’s on the liberal side politically and generally passionately critical of anyone who questions government spending, taxes, and policies, particularly the school division, as her comments above reflect.”

    To correct the “reporter”, I am not “on the liberal side politically” (not that there would be anything wrong with that). I take issues one at a time, based on their individual merit, (independent by my definition, but definitely far more “liberal” than the other side which just blindly follows what their party tells them to do.

    I personally can not stand the ironies of “we don’t believe in taxes and we don’t want to pay government employees” when in the next breath those same individuals expect to get the services of those same government employees (ie: gathering of information and making copies at their own whim) for “free”.

    Hey, if you want something, pay for it….yourself. What is so “liberal” about that? And George, you do NOT know me. Your attempt to insult me with your labeling is nothing short of pathetic.

    • Another View says:

      Your claim that there are those who “don’t believe in taxes . . . [or] pay government employees” is just so much hyperbole. No one on this blog has ever made that claim.

      Rather, there are a few, standing up to big government and its champions in the public sector, who want government restrained by the Constitution, and kept to its traditional and proper functions. There are a few standing up against the notion that government knows best, and who defend the rights of the individual. There are a few who are offended by the notion that those who live off of others’ taxes have the nerve to demand more when the taxpayers are doing with less. There are a few who abhor government wasting precious taxpayer dollars. There are a few who find it morally reprehensible when government takes monies from some to give to others, and then has the nerve to call such efforts “charitable” (and wrongly so).

      Government answers to we the people; or it is supposed to answer to us. George Archibald sought information legally, as provided in the Virginia Code. He was acting in the great patriotic tradition of holding government accountable to the people. And you are incensed at him that the government obfuscated and obstructed, and in the end, spent $10k of taxpayer dollars to collect $600.00.

      You should be incensed. You should be incensed at the ninnies and the bean counters in government who refuse to do their job, while demanding that we obey their commands. You should be incensed at a government who seeks to hide its actions behind bureaucratic legalese. And you should be incensed at a government that has no more economic sense than to go to court over a $600.00 bill. No one in the private sector would spend $10k to collect $600.00, because it makes no sense.

      • “No one in the private sector would spend $10k to collect $600.00, because it makes no sense.”

        Unless there’s something to hide

  6. George Archibald says:

    To “Another View”: You are incorrect wit this earlier comment: “Bob Mitchell is not required to negotiate with you. The government is required to negotiate with you. Big difference.”

    Robert T. Mitchell is the paid Clarke County attorney who represents the county government as its lawyer in all legal matters and in court for a contractual fee of $200 per hour, so in that capacity he is the government personified as its legal representative. Mr. Mitchell was the Clarke County government’s representative in the Clarke County Circuit Court before Judge John E. Wetsel Jr., against me as plaintiff/petitioner in my Freedom of Information Act case. Mr. Mitchell responded to my FOIA requests in behalf of the Clarke County government along with County Administrator David Ash.

    I have filed my Notice of Appeal of Judge Wetsel’s decision in the FOIA case to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The issues in the appeal are these:

    (1) The 2,200-some pages of documents “provided” by Mr. Mitchell in response to Judge Wetsel’s initial orfer in the case were not hard-copies of the dopcuments. Mr. Mitchell provided me restrictive Adobe PDF electronic files by email as special internet hyperlinks created by the Clarke County IT division on the Clarke County government web site. The six separate hyperlinks are only accessible with compatible sophisticated computer equipment and internet access similar to that used by the government. I have been unable to readily access and use the documents this way, despite the court making me pay $617.53 for this email version. Mr. Mitchell has demanded an additional payment by me for actual hard copy of the documents, so in reality they have been withheld despite payment by me of $450.00 for not a single actual document that I can hold in my hands.

    So our county government is using electronic access of documents via the internet to actually deny access to its government records that have been ordered released by the court to me and any other citizen who does not have the same expensive computer equipment and internet access that they have in their government offices. This is a violation of law right there that I am asking the Virginia Supreme Court to address in my appeal.

    (2) The law is clear that both I and Mr. Mitchell as Clarke County’s legal representative in my FOIA case were required to make all possible efforts to discuss and try to settle any disputes regarding requested public records. I asked Mr. Mitchell in writing for a meeting to discuss ways to meet my FOIA requests. He responded that he had reviewed all four of my written requests, that he believed the county had complied with all four, and declined the requested meeting, saying it “would do no good.” This was befopre Judge Wetsel ordered the county to release the 2,200 pages of records that they later admitted in testimony had not been provided and withheld from me.

    So Mr. Mitchell’s action as the county’s legal representative and spokesman in our FOIA dispute, having denied my request for a reasonable face-to-face meeting to settle prior to trial, must explain to the Supreme Court how he did not break the FOIA law in that refusal. Judge Wetsel knew this but denied my motions to affirm these facts in his findings of fact and conclusions of law in my case, including his denial just yesterday of my latest request for him to clarify his Final Order with this finding. I am appealing Judge Wetsel’s refusal to tag the county for its uncontroverted violation of the FOIA law which caused me all the time, expense, and denial of public information right up to this minute.

    We are all victims of the county government’s and Mr. Mitchell’s persistent refusal to obey the government transparency law. I am trying to use this case as a way to obtain a remedy that will help everyone who wants and requests information from the government, in order to prevent this kind of continuous stonewalling and blatant disregard of our rights to open government and access to public information under the law.

    • Mr. Archibald, [redacted]

      It does not take “compatible sophisticated computer equipment and Internet access” to view them; any computer, whether desktop or laptop, with Adobe Reader (a FREE download, btw) can easily handle this.

      You can easily use the computers at the local library, or that laptop you drag into various local meetings. You can also save these .pdf files to your computer, to read and re-read at your poor-man’s-conspiracy-theorist’s delight.

    • My 2 Cents says:

      More money being wasted!

  7. Another View says:

    George, I appreciate your mission and your zeal. But don’t argue the law with me, because you’ll lose. You are wrong.

    A lawyer is not his client. A lawyer is merely is client’s advocate. A client’s position cannot be attributed to the lawyer.

    You, on the other hand, as a party pro se are both the client and the lawyer, so to speak. You are indivisible. You are bound by the law.

    Bob Mitchell did not break the law, and it is silly to suggest that he did so. As a matter of fact, Bob Mitchell is an excellent lawyer, and a good man. That you disagree with his client’s actions does not change those facts.

    George, if you are going to represent yourself, you need to become less emotional. Otherwise you will become the poster child for the adage that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.

    Step back. Address the issues you have with Clarke County. And give Bob Mitchell the respect he deserves, which is considerable.

  8. Please stop wasting taxpayer money on this. It is actions like this that cause the line item for “legal fees” to be increased. This is not a request that will help the county or it’s citizens in any way. This is just a personal battle that the rest of the county has to pay for. Shame on you.

  9. Roscoe Evans says:

    George, you are wasting your time on this windmill tilt. It isn’t worth your cash or your talents.

  10. Another View says:

    Mr. Archibald has no realistic chance on obtaining Supreme Court review. But as to the initial Circuit Court skirmish, he was right, the County was wrong, and he did not waste taxpayer dollars; THE COUNTY DID!