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Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.

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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.

 

 

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Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/spotsygovt/2008/09/12/county-attorney-opines-on-code-of-ethics-closed-meeting/

  • gramps

    I would want to know what was discussed in that closed session or any other of a similar nature. I believe Mr. Stroman is absolutely incorrect in his interpretations. I also beleive the very fact that he is still defending his action indicates he is feeling “heat” on this issue. I am very concerned about the BOS and much of what has been happening lately. The whole budget problem should never have reached the proportions where it now stands.

  • Minuteman

    If the nature of the closed session was simply to discuss with Supervisors what’s contained in the Code of Ethics (public document), then why wouldn’t that discussion be in public? If a Supervisor actually charged one of his peers with a violation of the Code, that would also be in public, right? If a Supervisor were forced to defend himself against a charge, he certainly would not ask the County Attorney to represent him, would he? Even if Jay did represent a Supervisor, then that would be in a separate meeting, not in a closed session with the rest of the Supervisors.

    I don’t yet see any valid reason for the closed meeting. That discussion of potential ethical violations would be uncomfortable is not enough of a reason to keep it out of the public domain. The FLS is right.

  • dantelvock

    Minuteman,

    The Board has historically, ever since I have worked here (Nov. 2006) met in closed session to discuss the code of ethics and allegations against a supervisor. Never has it ever been discussed in an open session. Never had disciplinary action, if any was taken, been mentioned in a public session. Call the clerk and ask for the closed session agendas since 2004 and see how many times the supervisors met in closed session for the code of ethics. I recall at least two or three (maybe it was for the same issue) a year or two ago. It probably is not many, but there have been some.

  • dantelvock

    The argument I attempted to make at their meeting and was shut down, was that the code of ethics is a public document and any discussion that a supervisor may have violated it should be an open one because the supervisor is an elected leader. If the code of ethics allegations, and any punishment, is done in a closed session, then what is the purpose of having a code of ethics if no one ever knows an elected official violated it?

    Mr. Stroman cited a court case about a supervisor punished for violating the code of ethics, who sued to get it expunged, and I wonder if he realizes that the entire discussion about the allegations and punishment was done in an open meeting, in front of the public and television cameras. Sort of gives some teeth to that code of ethics, doesn’t it?

  • gramps

    I am wondering if the FLS ought to ask the Virginia Attorney General for his opinion?

  • dantelvock

    There is already an opinion, Gramps. Read Mr. Stroman’s letter. He cites it.

    If you cannot find the opinion, let me know.

  • gramps

    clearly states that ELECTED constitutional officers are public officers. It further states that an elected public board (school in the opinion) MAY NOT meet in closed session to discuss the performance and other related matters of individual members of the board.

    Therefore, the BOS and Mr. Stroman acted in violation in the opinion of the Atty Gen.

    Thanks, Dan, for pointing this out.

  • heckman

    Clearly some ethics issues with our BOS. There has been discussion in the past when one of our appointed supervisors questioned the ethics of behavior exhibited by Supervisor Vince Oronoto. It was properly discussed in public as it should be. There are no provisions in the FOIA or Sunshine laws that would protect a private supervisor meeting of this nature.

    Thanks Dan for bringing this to light! Now we need to do something!

  • dantelvock

    Heckman, I am not sure which meeting of which you speak, but my recollection is that none of those discussions were in public. Maybe you are thinking of a different meeting, but this is when I first came here, there were several discussions in closed session about the code of ethics and board member. Since then, I’ve been reading into the issue. On Aug. 12, I objected.