Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.
County Attorney Opines On Code of Ethics Closed Meeting
In a letter received today from County Attorney Jacob Stroman, he opined that it is perfectly legal for supervisors to meet in closed session to discuss the code of ethics and the performance of a supervisor related to the public document, and that any disciplinary action does not need to be made public.
His three-page letter, my objection to that Aug. 12 closed meeting, and a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors and Stroman from our chief editor, Ed Jones, was the subject of a closed meeting Tuesday night.
Stroman also calls me out for the way I made the objection.
"Mr. Telvock went to the podium and attempted to make a statement, despite the fact that this portion of the Board’s agenda did not allow for public comment. As Parliamentarian, I was compelled to note that Mr. Telvock was out of order three times before he desisted."
Mr. Stroman contends I violated the county board’s bylaws by making the objection after he read the closed session agenda. In strict terms of the bylaws, he is right, I did. But what I did that night is common practice among journalists across this state.
Stroman and I had a short phone discussion last week, when I asked him when would be the proper time for a resident or a journalist to object to a possible closed session violation. He said I and any resident must make the objection during the allowed public comment portions of the meeting. One period is held before the closed session, and one is after.
I attempted to inform him that 1. this closed session item was added to the agenda later and 2. residents do not get copies of the closed session agenda. I said without knowing what you are going into closed session to discuss, how can one object? And, if one were to object at the second allowable timeframe for public comment, the supervisors would have already met in closed session. Mr. Stroman’s reply to that was that there are remedies, such as fines, if it is later determined that the meeting was illegal. But that takes court action, an official lawsuit, and money. But by that time, the damage is done, the information was shared in a closed meeting, and it still does not become public.
So, here is the question I pose to you: If a supervisor is accused of violating the code of ethics, would you want the discussion of whether the allegations are valid to be done in the open? And, also, if there is a violation, would you at least want the disciplinary action to be in public?
This paper argued that the code of ethics is a public document. It’s right here. Therefore, it should be discussed in public. But we also argued that supervisors cannot hire or fire one another; they are elected officials. Therefore, any disciplinary action made as a result of a code of ethics violation should be made in public, and discussed in public.
What is interesting is Mr. Stroman cites a 1997 U.S. Court of Appeals case out of Loudoun County, Whitener v McWatters, where the court noted that "As legislative speech and voting is protected by absolute immunity, the exercise of self-disciplinary power is likewise protected."
Mr. Whitener was challenging disciplinary against him for violating the code of ethics.
Unfamiliar with the case, I called my former editor at Leesburg Today, Norman Styer, who is familiar with this matter. He said "but the actions against Whitener were taken in public."
You can read Stroman’s letter here.