Judge rules in Onley Mayor vs. Town Case

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By Carol Vaughn —

A judge ruled against Onley Mayor Matt Hart in a civil case Hart brought against the town after the town council in June approved a resolution censuring the mayor, following a closed session at a special meeting in May.
The town announced the court ruling on its website, http://townofonley.org/
Judge Sam D. Eggleston III, of the Lynchburg General District Court, sent a letter July 9 to attorneys for Hart and the town issuing his opinion, according to the announcement.
Eggleston heard the case via videoconference after Judge Gordon Vincent, an Onley resident, recused himself.
“Mayor Hart’s lawsuit alleged three Freedom of information Act (FOIA) violations made by the town. Judge Eggleston ruled the town of Onley did not violate FOIA in any of the mayor’s allegations,” the statement said.
Hart alleged town officials did not follow proper procedure under the Freedom of Information Act in calling a special executive session May 19, where the censure apparently was discussed.
Hart did not attend the meeting, which he has said he thought was held illegally.
He 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.
The resolution, approved with four yes votes and two abstentions at the June 1 council meeting, says Hart created a hostile work environment for employees and contractors; used profanity and abusive language to confront council members; publicly made false accusations regarding town employees; threatened town employees; spoke on behalf of the town with the town’s permission; and repeatedly failed to follow parliamentary procedure in meetings.
Eggleston ruled against Hart on three issues he raised in his complaint: first, that the notice of the special meeting, sent by email to Hart, did not comply with state law; second that the subject of the closed meeting did not fall within the permitted exceptions to the open meeting requirement of the FOIA; and third, that the motion to go into closed session did not comply with the FOIA.
While state code requires that notice of a special meeting be in writing delivered in person to the recipient, the town charter “does not have the same requirements for notice of special meetings and requires only ‘reasonable notice,'” the judge wrote, adding that the failure of the notice to meet the requirements of the state code section “does not constitute a FOIA violation.”
On the second issue, Eggleston wrote that a section of the law permits public bodies to go into closed session to discuss “the performance and disciplining of specific public officials” and another section of law says members of public bodies can be fined or punished for disorderly conduct.
Finally, Eggleston said the motion to go into closed session complied with FOIA requirements.
The judge’s letter and the resolution of censure are both posted on the town’s website.