Secretsville D.O.A: City loses F.O.I.A. appeal

The City of Charlottesville failed to persuade a judge last week that the price it's paying for a multi-million-dollar computer system should remain confidential.

On May 21, General District Court Judge Robert Downer listened to arguments by Jim Moore, a citizen who wants to shine some public light on a new contract he thinks could ultimately cost taxpayers over $17 million. The city claims the system will cost $6.6 million.

Moore filed a request under the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on April 19, and when the city refused to provide a breakdown of the contract costs, he appealed.

After its initial appearance before Downer May 14, the city gave Moore pages of its contract with a firm called e.a. consulting in which actual prices– and even what was being priced– were totally blacked out.

It also provided an aggregate of the costs that totaled $5.3 million.

"These figures in no way add up to $6.6 million," complained Moore, who represented himself in court.

"Maybe the $6.6 million doesn't exist," quipped Downer.

Assistant City Manager Linda Peacock later testified that city overhead accounted for the missing $1.4 million.

Peacock said that throughout the contract negotiations, the vendor insisted that all pricing information remain confidential and marked it as such.

Deputy City Attorney Lisa Kelley argued against opening up the cost breakdown, but Downer said he thought the FOIA provides few exceptions for secrecy. "Any exceptions," said Downer, "should be construed narrowly."

In ruling against the city, Downer said, "Look at the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act: We operate government in the light of day. The public has a right to look at what government does."

The city will appeal Downer's decision in Circuit Court, according to Kelley.

The case marks for Charlottesville the first appeal of a Freedom of Information Act denial– at least since the 1980s, when the city changed its mind after denying a FOIA request about the Omni.

And the appeal was educational, even for the judge. "This was very interesting," Downer said. "I was surprised to learn that Freedom of Information appeals are brought to General District Court."

City officials provided Jim Moore with a cost breakdown for the CityLink computer system in response to his Freedom of Information Act request and a judge's order– but blacked out all the information he wanted.

Jim Moore proves you can fight City Hall.