There was nothing special about Teresa Sullivan’s firing.
Well, sure, we’re talking about the president of the state’s flagship university, and she was one of the state’s highest paid employees, and she held one of the most coveted jobs in American academia.
But for all that, in the eyes of the Freedom of Information Act’s meeting provisions, President Sullivan was no different from Zoe the city parking attendant.
And the Board of Visitors at Mr. Jefferson’s University was no different from the Town of Podunk or any other local government, regional authority, state board, etc.
Like all public bodies, the BOV is required to give three working-days notice of regularly scheduled meetings. Like all public bodies, the BOV is required to give “notice reasonable under the circumstances” when calling a “special or emergency meeting,” and that notice must be given to the members of the board and the public at the same time.
Like all public bodies, the BOV may go into closed session to talk about one of the topics enumerated in section 2.2-3711 of Virginia’s FOIA. The BOV must first convene in an open public meeting before it votes by motion to go into closed session.
There are three exemptions that apply only to the BOV and a few select entities, and not to the rabble of ordinary public bodies. But mostly, the BOV has the same exemptions at its disposal as a small town council. And one of those exemptions is the so-called personnel exemption. This is where boards can talk about the “assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining, or resignation of” public employees.
If it’s not THE most common exemption invoked by public bodies of all shapes and sizes, it has to be in the top three (attorney-client and student discussion being the others).
What has been going on in Charlottesville for the past week and a half is really not so different from what we see all over the state: public bodies orchestrating the removal of a well known employee. It may be the town manager, the city attorney, the school superintendent or the university president.
And just like we've seen all over the state, we've seen that this change in leadership was orchestrated by just a few members of a larger board who used the gaps and spaces in FOIA to follow the letter of the law but to nonetheless undermine public confidence in the decision.
Anyone remember Gloucester County circa 2007? After the November elections that year, but before newly elected members had been sworn in, three sitting members and two elected members met and talked two-by-two, as is allowed by FOIA to plan the removal of both the county administrator and the county attorney. And that’s what they did at their first official meeting, literally at the midnight hour, after a long closed session. The other members of the board, not to mention the administrator, attorney and public were stunned.
A failed court action confirmed that what they’d done was within the technical boundaries of FOIA, and the supervisors were very public in proclaiming their vindication. They insisted the blowback from the community was all political. Some of it could have been, no doubt, but the supervisors never seemed to get that the public was angry over the secrecy and manipulation.
And where are those supervisors now? The leader was trounced in her reelection bid, and the remaining four did not seek reelection when their terms expired.
I’m not saying the BOV Rector, Helen Dragas, should or should not step down or that Gov. Bob McDonnell should or should not reappoint her. Or anyone else, for that matter.
What I am saying is that all those associated with this decision should not underestimate the public’s frustration. They should not dismiss it as being political or pro-Sullivan or anti-top-down or whatever. It may and it may not be any of those things, at least in part.
What it REALLY is is the public’s anger over feeling like they’ve been hoodwinked, and are now being treated like bratty toddlers who keep asking, “Why?”
So, whether it’s the Town of Podunk, Gloucester County or the UVa Board of Visitors, they all have a duty to their constituencies, to the public at large, to be forthright.
Go beyond and keep the people informed. Remember that compliance with the letter of the law is not something to aspire to, it is something to exceed.