FOIA lawsuit against City of Richmond can proceed

A lawsuit against the City of Richmond seeking to unearth documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act about the departure of the former chief administrative officer Byron Marshall will still be considered in Richmond Circuit Court.

By Cameron Vigliano

In a hearing Thursday morning at the John Marshall Courthouse, attorneys representing the city sought to have the lawsuit thrown out. They argued that documents detailing an employee dispute – in this case, Marshall – are exempt from public disclosure.

“The city, like any other, has the right to resolve disputes privately,” Stephen Hall, an attorney representing the city, told the court. That appeared to be a revelation regarding Marshall’s departure from the city’s highest profile unelected position. Previously, his exit was described by city officials and Marshall himself as a friendly resignation.

No other information was disclosed about the dispute between Marshall and Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ administration. Judge Joi Jeter Taylor didn’t officially rule on the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying, “I’m going to take the demurrer under advisement.” Taylor said she would schedule another hearing in the civil case within 10 days. She will consider the city’s motion to throw out the suit before the next hearing.

The lawsuit was filed in September by a former Richmond School Board member, Carol A.O. Wolf. She was among many citizens who filed Freedom of Information Act requests asking the city for details on Marshall’s departure.

Wolf specifically requested the separation agreement between Marshall and the city, his job application, and the confidentiality agreements some Richmond City Council members were required to sign before being briefed on Marshall’s departure.

Several council members refused to sign the documents and therefore weren’t briefed on the matter. It’s not clear whether the confidentiality agreements must be publicly released. The city said those documents are exempt from FOIA because of attorney-client privilege.

As for Marshall, the city hired an attorney to negotiate his exit, which resulted in a $163,617 severance package. City officials have not released details on how that was negotiated, again citing attorney-client privilege.

Wolf spoke to reporters after the hearing and seemed encouraged by her suit’s continuation. She commended Taylor for “taking her time.” “I appreciate that in a judge,” Wolf said.

As for the city’s attorney, Hall had no further comment on his argument in the hearing that the city and Marshall were in an employment dispute. “We appreciate the court’s time, and we’re eager to get to the judge’s ruling.”

Marshall: No Stranger to Controversy

As Mayor Jones’s right-hand man, Marshall oversaw the day-to-day operations of Richmond city government. Consequently, he was involved in handling controversial issues like the mayor’s failed plan to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. Marshall was also involved in a recent scandal that prompted the city’s former director of finance, Sharon Judkins, to file a $10 million defamation lawsuit against the city’s chief auditor, Umesh Dalal. Marshall’s connection there is that he incorrectly credited Judkins with 800 hours of sick leave, equaling about $400,000 of pension pay.

Additional information about Marshall was reported late last summer on Open Source RVA, which airs on the community radio station WRIR 97.3. Before coming to Richmond, Marshall worked for city governments in Washington, D.C.; Austin and Houston, Texas; and Atlanta, Georgia. Despite being the highest-paid Richmond city employee before his departure, Marshall does not possess a master’s degree. Moreover, he lacked an undergraduate degree well into his tenure as a top city administrator in Atlanta, receiving a bachelor’s in history from Syracuse University in 1997.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, which is an online database keeping track of degree recipients in higher education as well as enrollment dates, a young Byron Marshall attended Syracuse University between September of 1974 and December of 1980 – but never received his undergraduate or master’s.

When confronted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution more than 15 years later about his lack of a degree, Marshall sought permission from the university to convert graduate credits he had accrued to undergraduate credits so he could be granted his bachelor’s from the school.

Syracuse awarded Marshall’s bachelor’s degree in history in December 1997. At that time, Marshall was working as a top administrator in Austin. News reports from the time blamed a clerical error by Syracuse University for the late degree.

Unexplained in the National Student Clearinghouse report is why Marshall’s time as an undergraduate student at Syracuse was so short. He attended from September 1974 until May 1976. For the additional four years of attendance, the Syracuse registrar’s office told Open Source RVA that Marshall “was enrolled in master’s classes” but could not provide more information on how many course credits Marshall took or received.

After a City Council meeting on June 9th, Marshall gave Open Source RVA a brief explanation of the matter. He acknowledged he did not possess a master’s degree. Asked why, Marshall said, “I dropped out. I had a job and a wife and kid.”

Richmond city officials declined to provide information on whether a master’s degree was a requirement for the position of chief administrative officer. Typical job listings for similar positions in other cities require a master’s degree in public administration or business administration for consideration.

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