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South Hill sued for info on town manager

South Boston News
Callis
SoVaNow.com / February 05, 2020
The Town of South Hill has been sued under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act by a Richmond-area lawyer who is demanding the disclosure of documents related to “complaints from citizens or third parties” about Town Manager Kim Callis.

Midlothian attorney Richard Hawkins filed the lawsuit Thursday after making three attempts to obtain what he contends are public documents of complaints against Callis. Hawkins’ filing seeks communications received by “any member of the Town Council, directly to Mr. Callis, or anyone else in the town government from Sept. 1, 2018 to the present.”

Hawkins claims his first request for documents was made Sept. 9, followed by a second request sent Oct. 15, and a third written request that he submitted to the town on Jan. 6.

Hawkins said when he first heard back from Town Hall, officials claimed not to have any documents pertaining to Hawkins’ FOIA request. Later, the town asserted that it was “fully compliant” with FOIA requirements, a response that Hawkins claims is deficient.

Town officials provided Hawkins with some documents but acknowledged they withheld 27 pages that were properly “exempt from production under FOIA,” Hawkins alleged.

When asked to comment on the complaint, Callis said, “It is the policy of the town not to comment on pending litigation. Our legal representative will file a timely response.”

In his complaint, Hawkins states that he is concerned about ongoing personnel problems in South Hill, including the resignation of the Town’s finance director and director of public works, both of whom reported directly to Callis as town manager. Hawkins further states he was concerned about a third unnamed individual who “had difficulties” with Callis.

Hawkins also contends that he was motivated to file the FOIA request after learning “that Callis had engaged in some unusual actions during the summer of 2019. Notably on Aug. 7, 2019 Callis sent out a memo — perhaps best described as a ‘gag order’ — to the Town’s supervisory personnel telling them not to discuss ‘Town employee and employment matters’ with either the mayor or the town council members.”

Employees who had questions or concerns about employment matters were, according to the lawsuit, directed to bring their concerns to Callis.

Hawkins alleges this mandate created a “Catch-22” for employees who were “bothered by such things as Callis’ managerial style, his interactions with staff, or other actions he took against them or other town employees.” Hawkins described this as an “odd if not counterproductive structure to handle complaints,” as well as an “attempt to stifle potentially valid or reasonable concerns about the operation of the Town and its employees.”

Hawkins lawsuit is not the first instance of discord that has surfaced in South Hill in the past year. In August, vice mayor and councilman Leroy Sasser challenged steps taken by Callis to remove long-time Chamber of Commerce and Community Development Authority (CDA) Executive Director Frank Malone from his CDA leadership position.

Sasser, who sits on the CDA board, said he had no prior knowledge of the action before the town publicly advertised Malone’s job.

Callis disputed these claims, saying he had invited Sasser to join him in a discussion with Malone about changes afoot for the CDA and their desire to find someone with different qualifications to lead the economic development organization. That meeting was set to take place on Friday, Aug. 9. By then, Sasser noted, the job opening had already been advertised.

Callis subsequently put a stop to attempts to reorganize the CDA or to remove Malone as its head. Still, Callis’ initial actions prompted leaders in the Chamber of Commerce and some in the business community to question his motives.

The following month, at the September meeting of South Hill Town Council, councilman Ben Taylor attempted to censure Mayor Dean Marion for what he said was the mayor’s repeated violation of town policies. Taylor said Marion needed to be admonished for repeatedly meeting behind closed doors with town employees, during which time confidential personnel matters were discussed.

According to the censuring resolution, Marion admitted taking part in the meetings, which Taylor claimed undermined the town policy manual and caused harm to town council, citizens, employees and the community.

Taylor’s censure motion narrowly failed on a vote of 4-3, with one abstention. As with the earlier attempt to remove Malone, this move by Taylor drew the ire of members of the business community who were present during the August and September council meetings.

In November, Hawkins attempted to discuss the town’s alleged non-response to his FOIA requests filed in September and October. Hawkins was told that a council meeting was not the appropriate forum to raise these concerns and was instructed by Town Clerk Anna Cratch to submit them in writing.

At that same meeting in November, local business owner Shep Moss shared his frustration with council members for holding a vote outside the presence of the public during its October meeting.

No action was taken by council during this portion of the October meeting, aside from a vote to conclude a closed session and go back into open session. However, the episode — coupled with the departure of three key employees within a six-month period, Finance Director Catherine Bigelow, Public Works Director Bill Wilson, and Human Resources Manager Karen Lambert — stirred distrust of certain town officials among critics in the business community, among others.

“Given these and other actions by Callis,” the lawsuit reads, Hawkins is entitled to documents under the Freedom of Information Act relating primarily to the town manager.

Hawkins cites language in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act statute, Va. Code 2.2-3700(B) which calls for the Act to be liberally construed in favor of access to documents. Any exemption allowing public records to be withheld should be interpreted narrowly, the Act states. Hawkins concluded that this language calls for the town to produce “redacted documents” instead of withholding information altogether.

South Hill also must provide enough detail about claimed exemptions “for him to be able to adequately assess whether they [the claimed exemptions] are appropriate,” Hawkins’ lawsuit reads.

The complaint asks the court to order the production of the requested documents, and to award him attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses and to impose other civil penalties against the town for its violation of Virginia’s FOIA law. It will be at least three weeks before this matter will go before the court since the town now has 21 days from Monday to file dismissal motion, or at least 21 days to file an answer.

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