By Carol Vaughn —
Onley’s mayor and attorneys representing the town appeared in Accomack General District Court Tuesday, where a judge presiding via videoconference heard testimony and arguments about an injunction Mayor Matthew Hart filed against the town council after it voted to censure him in June.
In a statement attached to Hart’s petition, he alleged town officials did not follow proper procedure under the state Freedom of Information Act in calling a special executive session May 19, where the censure apparently was discussed.
Hart asked the court to enjoin the town council from engaging in similar behavior in the future and to order that the resolution of censure be set aside, as well as for the town to pay court costs and attorney’s fees.
Judge Sam Daniel Eggleston of the Amherst General District Court heard the case via videoconference after Judge Gordon Vincent, who lives in Onley, recused himself.
Eggleston had not issued a ruling in the case by the press deadline.
Hart’s attorney, David Rowan, said Hart declined to attend the May 19 meeting after he and council members were informed about it via a May 14 email from the town manager.
Hart believed the meeting was in violation of the FOIA, “so he declined to attend” and had his attorney send an email to the town council before the meeting saying that, Rowan said.
The stated reason for the executive session was to discuss personnel matters and included mention of parliamentary procedure, decorum, and professionalism — language which Rowan said does not fit into any of the categories the FOIA allows for a closed meeting.
“This motion starts off okay, then it goes off the rails,” he said, alleging the motion “doesn’t tell the public anything about what’s going on in this case.”
The council at the next regular meeting June 1 passed a resolution censuring Hart, with 4 members approving it and two abstaining.
“The only way this resolution could have been created” was through what went on in the closed session, according to Rowan.
“What we do know is no one has any idea what went on in that closed session,” he said, adding, “…So the public has been left completely in the dark about a subject that should have been in open session.”
Rowan also argued the statements in the resolution “are all conclusionary statements without evidentiary support.”
The resolution says Hart created a hostile work environment for employees and contractors, used profanity and abusive language, and repeatedly failed to follow parliamentary procedure, among other allegations.
Rowan said the resolution has been “personally embarrassing” to Hart.
“It has injured his standing as the mayor…and it has injured his constituents who voted for him,” Rowan said.
Attorney Lynwood Lewis, representing the town, said the closed session was appropriate and argued Hart’s petition is not specific enough as to the shortcomings of the procedure used to call for the session. “There had been some increasingly erratic…behavior” by Hart prior to the meeting being called for at the request of four council members, Lewis said, citing a section of state law that allows for governing bodies to discipline members.
The FOIA allows closed sessions to discuss personnel matters including demotion, performance, or discipline, Lewis said.
Additionally, Lewis said no Virginia case law substantiates voiding the censure resolution vote taken in the June 1 meeting.
Hart and Town Manager Jayme Salazar testified at the hearing.
Hart said Salazar did not consult with him before sending the email notifying officials about the May 19 special meeting and that he “felt at the time that this wasn’t important enough” to hold an in-person meeting during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its height.
Salazar testified that she has worked for the town 11 years and is the town’s FOIA officer.
She said she drafted the motion to go into closed session.