Council motion met with silence

Published 10:02 am Sunday, September 14, 2008

FRANKLIN—The city’s vice mayor wants an opinion from the state attorney general before retroactively approving minutes that document David Benton’s April appointment to the city school board.

City Attorney Taylor Williams advised City Council members to adopt the minutes at their Monday meeting, but a motion by Councilman Mark Fetherolf to do so died for lack of a second. Councilmen Benny Burgess and Barry Cheatham were ineligible to second the motion, as neither served on the council when Benton was appointed on April 1. Council rules also prohibit Mayor Jim Councill from seconding a motion.

That left Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson and Councilwomen Mary Hilliard and Rosa Lawrence to provide the second. The three women, who each opposed Benton’s appointment, sat silent as Councill called for a second to Fetherolf’s motion.

Johnson said afterward that she wants feedback from the attorney general on the legality of Benton’s appointment before she approves the reconstructed minutes.

The city attorney, in response to a July complaint by Ellis Crum, acknowledged two errors related to Benton’s appointment.

The special meeting at which Benton was appointed violated Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act because the City Council failed to give citizens formal notice of the meeting, Williams said. Council members had discussed the April 1 meeting at a prior meeting in March, and the council’s intention to interview prospective school board members was mentioned in a Tidewater News article about the March meeting. But the council failed to place a formal public notice in the newspaper, Williams said. Also, no minutes of the April 1 meeting were filed — a fact brought to the council’s attention by Crum, a former mayoral candidate whose wife, Phyllis, was among the candidates interviewed on the same night Benton was appointed.

Williams deemed the minutes omission “correctable” but has sought the attorney general’s advice on the failure to provide proper notice of the meeting.

Crum, in remarks to the council before Fetherolf’s motion, cautioned council members against approving the minutes.

“What does the approval of these minutes signify if the city has already stated that the meeting was not in compliance with the Freedom of Information Act?” Crum said. “It’s kind of like getting fruit from a poison tree. I ask you to wait until the attorney general has ruled before you validate an action that by its very nature may have been an illegal action.”

Williams said after the meeting that there’s no timetable for the attorney general’s review — or even a guarantee that the AG will review the matter.

Councill declined to comment about his colleagues’ failure to second the motion.

Benton, who had served for nine years previously on the school board, including a time as chairman, was appointed by a 4-3 vote to the board’s at-large seat.