Mr. Richard Hawkins of Midlothian, Virginia has filed a Petition for Mandamus under the Freedom of Information Act with the Mecklenburg County Circuit Court against the Town of South Hill. The Petition calls for the Court to “review all withheld documents, to reject the exemptions asserted by the Town, to order the Town to produce the requested documents, and to order all other appropriate relief.
The Petition comes after Mr. Hawkins made three separate FOIA requests for the Town to produce a number of documents related to the employment of former Finance Director, Kathryn Bigalow, the job description of Town Manager, Kim Callis, complaints from citizens against Callis, cell phone records for Callis,“any employment contracts in force with respect to Kim Callis,” and EEOC Complaints made by current or former employees received by the Town. The lawsuit also states that over the past twelve months the Town’s Finance Director, Director of Public Works, and an unidentified third employee had “difficulties” with Mr. Callis. In August of last year Callis sent a memo, described as a “gag order” in the Petition, to Town personnel telling them “not to discuss ‘Town employees and employment matters’ with either the Mayor or the Town Council members and that if they had any problems, they should address them directly to him.”
Hawkins’ original request was made on September 9, 2019 and was followed up on in October with a letter to Town Clerk, Anna Cratch, and the eight individual members of Town Council. In it Mr. Hawkins stated that he specifically requested information on “All complaints from citizens or third parties about Kim Callis that have been sent to or received by (i) any member of the Town Council, (ii) directly to Mr. Callis, or (iii) anyone else in the Town government from September 1, 2018 to the present.” He stated that Ms. Cratch notified him in a letter on September 23, 2019 that the “The Town of South Hill does not have any responsive documents” pertaining to his request. He also stated that Ms. Cratch, on behalf of the Town, withheld information regarding Mr. Hawkins’ request for payments made to Kathryn Bigalow based on “personnel exemption” under Va. Code 2.2-3705.1(1). Hawkins disputed this withholding stating that under the same code “things such as payments of public monies to public employees shall not be withheld from the public.”
In the same letter Mr. Hawkins made an additional FOIA request for communications between Kim Callis and council members regarding citizens complaints about the Town Manager, communications between Callis and the South Hill Community Development Association (CDA), copies of notices sent to employees instructing them not to talk to Town Council members about their concerns, all documents and communications regarding “complaining about, censuring, disciplining, criticizing, or restricting the actions or behaviors of the Mayor of South Hill, or any plans to do the same.”
On October 15, in an email sent directly to Kim Callis, Hawkins requested information in regard to the Community Development Board, on which Callis holds the position of President. The FOIA request included the information be provided on all payments made to Callis, communications between CDA members and anyone with the Town of South Hill, drafts of any posts for the position of Director, federal tax returns from three years prior, transaction information on any payments made involving the CDA and the Colonial Theater/ Performing Arts Center, and documents on any loans to the CDA.
After initially stating that the town could not provide information on complaints against Mr. Callis, a letter was sent to Mr. Hawkins with documents “that were identified as complaints about the Town Manager.” According to the lawsuit, in doing this “the Town actually confirmed Hawkins’ concern that its initial responsive was deficient.” However, Mr. Hawkins was still concerned that he was not receiving “fully responsive documents.”
On November 26, he attempted yet again to get the full extent of the information that he had requested by sending another electronic letter to the Town Clerk and Town Council Members. In it he stated “if you have any partially relevant and responsive documents, I expect to receive them. I also expect to receive a list of items that is being withheld, rather than simply a statement invoking an exclusion.”
In December, through counsel, the Town replied to Mr. Hawkins asserting that it was “fully compliant with the FOIA because (i) it had produced all non-exempt responsive documents and (ii) 27 pages otherwise responsive documents were properly being exempt from production under FOIA.” Again Hawkins expressed his concerns about the information he was receiving. The lawsuit states that “while the letter referred to 27 pages of documents being withheld, he found it difficult to believe that only 27 pages of documents are at issue. He also had concerns that the Town had not fully investigated to see whether or not additional responsive documents exist about any verbal complaints about the Town Manager.” Mr. Hawkins believes that he was not provided enough details about the alleged exempt documents.
Mr. Hawkins made one final attempt on January 6, in an email to Anna Cratch, to obtain documentation regarding complaints filed against Mr. Callis along with the resignation letters of three high level Town employees. The Town responded by declining to provide any further information. He is asking the Court “to order the production of the requested documents, as well as all other appropriate relief under FOIA.” In addition he is asking for the Town to receive “civil penalties under FOIA”, attorney’s fees, and “associated expenses and costs related to this action and all other such relief as is just and proper.” A period of time will be provided to the Town to respond to the suit or file a dismissal motion.