Transparency rules questioned in Richmond County

 

Dist. 5 Supervisor and Chairman Lee Sanders

An impromptu lunch meeting has some citizens crying foul, saying that Richmond County Supervisors are in violation of open meeting laws.

According to a recent letter, sent by Kathy Morse Clarke to County Administrator Morgan Quicke, the issue began at a local eatery where two supervisors sat down for their usual post county-meeting meal.

On Nov. 8, Supervisors Lee Sanders and Richard Thomas, along with Quicke, were seated at a table when approached by fellow county official John Haynes.

Although the group of three elected officials formed a quorum, as long as no county business was discussed, the meeting would have been considered informal and completely within transparency standards.

According to Clarke, who was seated nearby the supervisors, what happened next was in opposition to regulations.

“I couldn’t help but overhear discussions taking place at the table and immediately became concerned with their nature and potential liability,” Clarke said in the Nov. 16 letter, adding that the discussion included topics that had been addressed at the earlier meeting, the recently failed school board referendum as well as the ongoing public school construction project.

“At one point, [Haynes] even mentioned ‘not wanting to discuss county business in public,’ but the dialogue continued,” Clarke said.

It is a discussion that Clarke said violated Virginia’s open meeting laws prohibiting three or more elected officials from discussing county business outside of “the requisite forum.”

And it is a concern that one of the top officials at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government said held weight.

“Without prior notice, three or more officials are not supposed to be discussing any county business without prior notice,” said Coalition Associate Director Megan Rhyne during a Nov. 29 interview. “They just should not be talking about it.”

Rhyne also praised Clarke’s vigilance, saying that through the public’s attentiveness to regulations, municipal bodies are “kept in check.”

“The complaint is symbolic,” Rhyne said. “It lets everyone know that the people care about what is going on in their local government. This puts officials on notice.”

During a Dec. 3 interview, Sanders said that while there was some discussion about the school, he could not recall the entire conversation.

“All we talked about were the new changes [Superintendent Dr. Greg] Smith had discussed during the meeting,” Sanders said. “There was nothing wrong that I can recall.”

Thomas also said he did not remember what was discussed, adding that if there was any conversation, “it was light.”

Virginia law is unique in that it provides citizens with a legal recourse in the event of a single open meeting violation.

According to statutes, local courts have the power to impose injunctive relief against violations, ordering supervisors to refrain from discussing county business when three or more members are present.

However, Clarke said that her letter was meant to assist officials in working with the public for the betterment of the county.

“Out of respect…I chose not to raise this issue at that time in fear of creating a public spectacle,” Clarke said to Quicke in her letter. “I now look to you in your leadership role to provide guidance to our elected officials on the parameter of public meetings and deterrence of such future meetings taking place.”

Posted on Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 10:21 am