Benton’s school board appointment nixed

Published 7:56 am Wednesday, January 14, 2009

David Benton has been removed from the city school board after the state attorney general determined that Benton’s April appointment to the board’s at-large seat was invalid.

Benton’s removal leaves the school board one member short as it works to hire a new school superintendent.

City Attorney Taylor Williams informed City Council members Monday night of the opinion from Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who said the City Council’s failure to formally notify citizens of the April 1 meeting rendered Benton’s appointment “null and void.”

McDonnell’s opinion said citizens should have “free entry” into meetings where the “business of the people is being conducted.”

“Mr. Benton should not have been appointed and can no longer participate as a school board member,” Williams said.

After hearing from Williams on three options for filling the seat, council members decided to start over with the appointment process, receive nominations, interview all candidates and make an appointment at their Feb. 9 meeting.

Williams said he had already contacted school board Chairman Bill Scarboro about the matter.

“Mr. Scarboro has concerns,” Williams said. “He requests that we get this done as soon as possible because the board is in the middle of looking for a new superintendent and about to start its budget process.”

After a closed-door discussion of their options, council members decided to start from scratch.

“We think the right thing to do is begin the process over,” said Councilman Barry Cheatham, who was not on the council when Benton was appointed.

Councilwoman Rosa Lawrence said it’s a process the entire council should participate in.

“The brand-new members will benefit from going through this process,” she said. “I think it will be a good experience for them.”

Williams had advised council members that they could make a quicker decision by limiting the candidates to Benton and the two other nominees who were considered last spring. They could choose from among the three or interview each, then make a decision. In that case, the council could have made the appointment at its Jan. 26 meeting.

The matter fell into the hands of the attorney general after Ellis Crum, husband of school board nominee Phyllis Crum and a former mayoral candidate, alleged irregularities in the appointment process and brought the issue to the City Council’s attention in July.

Williams advised the council at the time that the appointment was valid and needed only to be recorded in the minutes after Crum noted a failure by the council to document the decision.

A motion by Councilman Mark Fetherolf at a September meeting to retroactively approve the April minutes died for lack of a second.

Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson requested the matter be examined by the attorney general before the council approved any reconstructed minutes.

“I have thanked Mr. Crum for his perseverance to get the process correct,” Williams said.

Crum said Monday that the attorney general “adequately diagnosed the problem.”

“I believe the council owes all three candidates personal letters of apology,” he said.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Benton reacted to the news.

“I’m just hopeful that they will do what’s right for the schools whether they fill the seat with me or someone else,” he said.

Benton said if asked, he would continue to serve on the board. “I would certainly be willing to fill the position until the expiration of the term,” he said.

In other action, the City Council:

Approved Brian Stump by a unanimous vote as the new finance director for the city of Franklin. Stump is currently the acting director of finance for the city of Suffolk.

Listened to Police Chief Phillip Hardison give a presentation explaining a $621,022 grant the department is applying for through the Department of Criminal Justice. If awarded the grant, the police department would be able to tie their database together with that of other Hampton Roads law enforcement agencies. According to Hardison, the database would decrease time lost and increase communication, making it easier to apprehend suspects who may flee across municipal borders.

Called for another public meeting on Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. in council chambers to discuss the tipping fee increase.