Break or illegal session?

Published 9:47 am Saturday, April 28, 2012

COURTLAND—The head of the Virginia Press Association called the Southampton County supervisors’ discussion in a hallway during a Wednesday budget workshop an illegal closed-door session.

Drewryville District Supervisor Dallas Jones, chairman of the board, said Friday they did not break the law. Ivor-Berlin District Supervisor Ronnie West agreed.

“As far as I’m concerned it was to take a break,” West said. “If anyone wants to make something out of that, they’re going in the wrong direction.”

At the start of the meeting to work on the county’s proposed $52 million budget, supervisors discussed whether comments would be taken from the more than 600 people at Southampton High School.

Jerusalem District Supervisor Dr. Alan Edwards understood that was the planned format, while Jones disagreed. After some discussion, Jones suggested the board take a five-minute break. The seven supervisors filed into a hallway.

“That’s very illegal,” Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Press Association said Friday. “Anytime more than two members of a public body meet, other than at an informal gathering, it’s considered a public meeting.”

Exceptions to the state’s open-meetings law include discussions about personnel or litigation.

State law allows one to take a public board to court for an illegal meeting, Stanley said.

“If the judge shows it was willful and knowing, then there are fines,” she said. “A second offense can go up to $5,000. It can be for the board or per member.”

When supervisors returned from the two-minute break, Southampton County School Board member Florence Reynolds stood up and accused them of meeting illegally.

“You had a closed meeting,” she said. “You just did something that was illegal.”

Jones said the matter discussed in the hallway wasn’t about the meeting.

“It was about whether we were going to (allow people) to speak or not,” he said. “By law, they cannot speak. It wasn’t advertised (as a public hearing).”

“All we did was take a break for a minute,” Jones continued. “All we did was walk out in the hall. It was not a meeting. I know better than that.”

“We were fumbling for words and he (Jones) wanted to take a break for a minute,” West noted. “As far as I’m concerned it was a break. The only thing that was said, and I said it, was it was his call (on how to conduct the meeting). He’s the chairman. Each one of us would have to go by what Dallas said.”

“There were seven of us in the hallway,” he continued. “We needed to slow down and take it easy.”