But the Board of Equalization didn’t post its agendas or any case information online; it often just slapped a piece of paper up outside its office listing the dates of pending cases. Its Web site remains skimpy on information about what actions it has taken, even though it conducts public hearings of tax appeals. Kaufman said that the board often didn’t allow his assessors to testify, even though it was their assessments that were being appealed.
But Bradford found out that a hearing was set for the National Conference Center case, which was interesting because the county was interested in buying part of the Lansdowne property for a planned high school. As the hearing proceeded, Bradford decided to snap a photo from her seat. Unintentionally, she set off her flash. The board members looked at her, and Littner apparently stopped the meeting twice to walk over and berate her, Bradford and four witnesses later testified.
Then the board summoned a sheriff's deputy and told him to seize the camera and destroy the photos, the deputy testified. Instead he escorted her out of the hearing room, and while Bradford was outside the board voted to reduce the conference center's tax assessment by $5 million.
Bradford filed a civil lawsuit against the board for violating the Freedom of Information Act. This was a small-claims suit in General District Court. But the board hired a private lawyer, John Flannery, who fought Bradford and ran up $60,000 in legal fees.
The Board of Equalization submitted the bill to the Board of Supervisors for payment. The supervisors were outraged, refused to pay, were dragged into court by the Board of Equalization and had to hire their own lawyers, costing taxpayers an additional $28,000. The case settled with the supervisors agreeing to pay the Board of Equalization’s legal bill up to $55,000, and the supervisors turning to Richmond seeking legislation to appoint the Board of Equalization themselves.
The legislation failed last year. But shepherded this session by Del. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-
Fauquier), it passed easily.
Bradford lost the lawsuit in April 2012. She was seeking $2,000 in sanctions, FOIA training for the board and payment of her $17,000 legal bill. Loudoun General District Court Judge Julia Cannon recited Bradford’s version of events as the factual sequence of the case — apparently rejecting Littner and fellow board member Edward Maurer’s sworn denials that Littner left his seat and confronted the reporter — and then made the logic-defying conclusions that the board was not required to provide its agenda to anyone, even if asked; that state FOIA law permits a rule requiring advance notice of any photographic intent (it does not); and that the deputy the board called to the meeting and instructed to seize Bradford’s camera “was not acting as their employee or agent.”
Bradford’s case shone a light on the board’s practices and led to new management and perhaps new procedures for the board. But she is not rejoicing over her place in history. She termed the ruling in her case “perverted justice” caused by “a toxic mix of hubris, cowardice, perjury and taxpayer inattention.”
She agreed that now, in effect, “voters will elect the tax assessor and can fire and hire that person every four years. But no matter who wins an election,” Bradford said, “taxpayers need the Virginia FOIA to defend their right to watch what government does when the door to the boardroom shuts in their face.”