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Former employee files whistleblower complaint against city of Richmond

city hall facade
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
The city of Richmond has not recently been fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests in a timely manner.

Connie Clay worked in Richmond’s communications department, handling FOIA requests.

A former city of Richmond employee has filed a whistleblower complaint against the city after being fired earlier this year.

Connie Clay handled Freedom of Information Act requests until Jan. 19 as part of the city’s Office of Strategic Communications and Civic Engagement, a department helmed by Petula Burks, who’s named in the suit. Clay began in the position in July 2023.

Among the department’s duties are reviewing and responding to FOIA requests, which enable the public and media organizations to obtain city documents and correspondence on everything from budgeting and permits to simple intra-office communications.

The suit alleges that the city's "process for handling FOIA requests was chaotic and mismanaged" when Clay, an attorney, began in her role. The filing goes on to say that Burks "directed" Clay to "withhold information."

A section of the suit with a heading of "Factual Allegations" includes dozens of instances when Clay asserts the city improperly handled a FOIA request. Clay also "expressed her concerns that the City officials with whom she interacted for FOIA requests had not been trained on what FOIA requires of the City," according to the suit.

Earlier this week, WTVR reported on delays in the city fulfilling FOIA requests, a procedure detailed in state law. Citations from a batch of emails were included that show correspondence between Clay and Burks, as well as among members of various other city departments.

Following the city’s meals tax issues being publicized, FOIA requests increased and workflow disagreements mounted, the correspondence shows.

In a Jan. 17 email to Burks, Clay wrote that she would “not misstate facts for you, [finance department head] Sheila White, the City of Richmond or anyone else” as the office worked to respond to a FOIA request. Burks responded by saying that no one was being asked to “misstate anything.”

At another point, Burks tells Clay in an email that fulfilling a FOIA request will take “an additional 10 to 15 days.” State code specifies that a public entity has the ability to request a seven-day extension. Beyond that, the body “may petition the appropriate court for additional time.”

When asked for comment on the suit, Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders told VPM News on Thursday that he “would never comment on personnel matters.”

Updated: March 1, 2024 at 4:56 PM EST
Details from the court filing have been added.
Dave Cantor has been an editor with VPM News since 2022, juggling daily digital and broadcast stories.
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