‘We need some time’: Buckingham board responds to Miles’ lawsuit

Published 1:19 pm Friday, May 12, 2023

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DILLWYN – Buckingham County Supervisor Jordan Miles will get the documents he’s been requesting. It will just take a bit more time. That was the Buckingham Electoral Board’s response, through their attorney, during a court hearing on Friday, May 12. 

“We understand what this is about,” said Richmond-based attorney Will Prince, who is representing the Buckingham board. “We’ll get him his records. We just need some time.” 

Miles filed a lawsuit against the board, board chair Dr. Karen Cerwinski and the registrar’s office earlier in the week, arguing they had violated state law in multiple ways. That includes failing to inform the public when meetings took place,  making decisions without the needed quorum of members present and failing to keep public records. Miles believed the public records he requested would show all of that was taking place. To date, those record requests have not been 100% fulfilled. 

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He’s asking for a couple things. 

First, he wants the electoral board to provide all of the documents he requested back in early April. Second, he’s asking the judge to sanction the electoral board and registrar’s office, meaning they or Buckingham County would be required to pay his attorney’s fees and costs for the lawsuit.

Third, he’s asking the judge to grant “other and further relief as may be appropriate, both to remedy the FOIA violation and to discourage further FOIA violations by the registrar, the electoral board and any other agency in Buckingham County.” 

Miles’ attorney, Charlottesville based Lloyd Snook III, told the court the main focus for his client was to get the requested information. 

“What we want most is compliance,” Snook said.  

Buckingham board misses deadlines

As for why it came to a lawsuit, Miles and Snook claim deadlines kept getting missed for the requested documents by the registrar’s office. The law requires a Freedom of Information Act request be handled within five business days, unless an extension is requested. Even that doesn’t push things back too far, as the extension can only go on for an additional seven working days, so 12 total by the latest. Miles filed his requests on April 14 and April 21. As of Monday, May 8, he still hadn’t received all of the requested information. 

Since interim registrar Luis Gutierrez was fired on Tuesday, filling this now falls on his deputy. Ginger Chiesa will step in and serve until the end of this term, which is over as of June 30. Chiesa was officially promoted to interim registrar during the electoral board’s meeting on Friday, May 12. 

During Friday’s court hearing, however, Prince just asked for time, pointing out Chiesa is still getting used to the office. 

He told the court she’s apolitical and here to mend some fences, to repair some relationships damaged in the community. 

“We’ll get him his records,” Prince said. 

What is he asking for? 

So what are these documents Miles is requesting? They’re split into two segments. Most of the first request pertain to the actions of the electoral board this year. Residents have asked how many people were interviewed for the registrar’s position and when did it happen? There’s also been questions about if state procedure was followed in regards to things like giving at least three days notice before meetings. 

That first request asks for all emails between board members and the registrar since Jan. 1 of this year. Miles also asked for the dates of all electoral board meetings, special or otherwise; the minutes of those meetings; the board meeting dates where candidates were interviewed and then when the interim registrar was hired; copies of notices sent out to the public, informing them of the date and time of the meeting to hire a new registrar and copies of all advertisements, legal notices or other documentation encouraging people to apply for the interim or permanent registrar’s position. 

The second FOIA request deals with last year’s election. In it, Miles asks for any absentee ballots from Nov. 2022 that shouldn’t have been counted. He also requests any returned absentee ballots and any absentee ballots deemed to be defective or fraudulent but still sent out. This is in response to some claims that a number of absentee ballots counted in Buckingham shouldn’t have been. 

Where does the registrar’s office come in? 

Part of the lawsuit is being amended, as it originally named former interim registrar Luis Gutierrez as a defendant. Since he no longer represents the office, Snook said they would remove him from the lawsuit. 

“We had sued him in his professional capacity,” Snook said, adding they would just name the registrar’s office in his place. 

That part of the lawsuit raised questions about several conversations over the past month between Gutierrez and Miles. Part of that includes a $200 convenience fee Gutierrez said he would add to the bill. He also asked Miles to make his check payable to Gutierrez himself, rather than the office. 

Virginia law requires elections officials to only charge for actual costs in responding to FOIA requests. That means how much it costs to print hard copies of the document, billing for an employee’s time spent searching through records, etc. 

“FOIA permits cost recovery, but not revenue generation,” says a document provided to The Herald by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. 

Both sides in the case say they hope to work things out before a second hearing. The case is expected to go back to court on Tuesday, June 6, beginning at 10 a.m.