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  • Writer's pictureSam Orlando

Judge Backtracks on Transparency, Augusta County FOIA Battle Moves to Virginia Court of Appeals

Written by: Michael Phillips

AUGUSTA COUNTY, VIRGINIA - In a judicial saga that has captivated advocates of open government, Breaking Through Media LLC and our Editor, Samuel Orlando, find themselves embroiled in a complex legal battle against Augusta County and Supervisor Scott Seaton over access to recordings of a secretly held Board of Supervisors meeting. This case, emblematic of the struggles for transparency in local governance, recently witnessed a perplexing twist when retired Judge Robert J. Wilson IV reversed his own decision that had originally mandated the release of these contentious recordings.

The reversal, occurring after a February 28 hearing ostensibly about attorneys' fees, has ignited fierce debate over the integrity of the judicial process and raised questions about the potential influence of local government on legal outcomes. This development is particularly striking given Judge Wilson's initial ruling, which was aligned with the principles of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — a ruling that many saw as a triumph for transparency.

Sam Orlando, the resilient editor at the heart of this fight, shared his perspective with Breaking Through News: "I never expected to win at the Circuit Court, because I believe the local court system is incredibly corrupt. I was shocked when Judge Wilson got it exactly right in his January letter opinion, and not at all surprised when his 'decision' somehow changed to something more palatable for the county's executives. Unfortunately for the county administrator and the supervisors, the Virginia Court of Appeals will decide this case, and I am extremely confident that justice will be served, and this recording will be released. I will not stop until Augusta County follows the law like every other county in Virginia. We will see this through."

Orlando's unwavering commitment to justice highlights the importance of the upcoming appeal and underscores a broader narrative about the struggle for accountability in local government. This case, now poised to be reviewed by the Virginia Court of Appeals, represents not just a quest for one recording but a significant challenge to the veil of secrecy that often shrouds the actions of local authorities.

The crux of the lawsuit revolves around the alleged improper conduct by the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, which is accused of having held a closed session on March 20, 2023, to discuss the resignation of Steven Morelli. Judge Wilson's January ruling had demanded that Augusta County release the recording of this session, finding the meeting to have been illegally held under Virginia's FOIA laws. Yet, in a stunning reversal, Wilson retracted his demand, citing privacy concerns for county employees mentioned in the recording — a justification that has been met with skepticism.

This judicial about-face not only casts doubt on the proceedings but also raises significant concerns about the consistency of legal interpretations and the potential for undue influence on the judicial process. As Orlando's comments suggest, the appeal to the Virginia Court of Appeals is more than a legal formality; it's a pivotal moment in the fight for governmental transparency and the rule of law.

As this legal battle transitions to the appellate court, Breaking Through News remains at the forefront, advocating for the right of the public to scrutinize the actions of their elected officials. This case, emblematic of broader issues of transparency and accountability in government, serves as a critical test of Virginia's commitment to FOIA laws and the principles they uphold.

Orlando's determination to "see this through" embodies the spirit of journalistic persistence and the essential role of the press in holding power to account. As the case moves to the Virginia Court of Appeals, all eyes will be on the potential for a legal precedent that reaffirms the public's right to transparency and challenges local governments to operate with the openness and integrity that democracy demands.

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