At 9:01 p.m. last Tuesday, an email blast went out to those on the city of Petersburg’s mailing list, giving notice of a special meeting by the City Council the next day.
Less than 24 hours later, the council debated and approved a real estate deal that will flush $1.3 million into the city’s empty coffers. Just half a dozen residents, mostly regulars concerned with the city’s mismanagement of finances, crammed into the tiny mayor’s conference room on the second floor of City Hall, with more waiting in the hallway.
With standing room only for just a handful of people around the conference table where council members were seated, it was an unusual setting for a vote on a controversial proposal to redevelop three city-owned properties into affordable housing for veterans.
The gathering, which ended in less than 30 minutes, was the latest in a series of council meetings scheduled on short notice, many of them at small venues and often at odd hours, testing the flexibility of residents who want to attend.
Some say the city’s leadership, in particular those responsible for planning the meetings, demonstrates a disconcerting pattern of suppressing civic participation.
“They show a lack of commitment to open government by scheduling, during the workday, in rooms with scant public seating, and or without adequate notice, just about every meeting other than the regular bimonthly Tuesday night council meetings,” said Barb Rudolph with Clean Sweep Petersburg, a group of local activists and a Facebook group with more than 600 members.
The leadership’s “secretive circle-the-wagons mentality erodes the public’s confidence in their being able to confront and resolve the city’s many thorny issues,” Rudolph said.
Mayor W. Howard Myers, in a phone interview Friday, denied Rudolph’s allegation and said neither he nor any other member of the City Council intends to exclude the public from participating in the process.
“Nothing is done to prevent the public from being there. That doesn’t cross anyone’s mind, and it is far from the truth,” Myers said.
“Any additional meetings that were called were with respect to facilitating the best interests of the city, as we are dealing with the budget crisis and furthering economic development. We’re not trying to hurt our citizens; we are trying to serve them.”
Yet Clean Sweep Petersburg last week filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia that accuses the Petersburg City Council of “actively suppressing citizen participation in/awareness of the conduct of city business.”
Although she had not yet reviewed the complaint by Friday afternoon, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said the policy “at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act” should be the principle that guides all state and local officials and employees in the conduct of public business.
Under the law, public affairs are not intended to be conducted “in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken” at any level of government.
“The activities and conduct of the Petersburg City Council reported to us appear to be inconsistent on their face with the spirit of the act, if not the letter of the act’s specific provisions,” Gastañaga said.
The City Council began adding more meetings to its calendar in February, when the city’s budget crisis escalated after an annual audit found overspending of the total general fund budget by $1.8 million and a total budget shortfall of nearly $6 million for fiscal 2016, which ended June 30. The deficit is expected to nearly triple in the current fiscal year.
After much public pressure calling for his termination, the City Council fired City Manager William E. Johnson III in March. City Attorney Brian K. Telfair stepped down the same day, followed by Finance Director Irvin Carter, who left in April.
But many residents remain frustrated with what they call a lack of transparency, alleging that the council deliberately misleads the public about the special meeting schedule in addition to making it harder to attend many of the meetings.
Since February, the council has held 13 special meetings, which can be requested by the mayor or two or more members. A 14th meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.
At least nine of these sessions were advertised on the city website as “closed,” suggesting that the public couldn’t attend — which is contrary to the FOIA section of the state code requiring that “all meetings of public bodies shall be open.”
While state law allows a public body to go into a closed session — to discuss personnel matters, disciplinary matters, acquisition of real property, prospective business transactions and similar issues — no resolution, contract, regulation or motion can be adopted in closed session. The body must reconvene in an open meeting before taking action.
The law specifically prohibits a public body to hold a closed meeting unless it has approved publicly — in an open meeting — a motion to go into closed session. Hence, closed sessions always are part of a public meeting.
Several of the sessions widely advertised as closed to the public read “special meeting” or even “regular meeting” on that day’s agenda. Because of the discrepancies, critics say the Petersburg council frequently attempts to disguise meetings as being not open to the public.
And on at least three occasions, the council has used special sessions to make decisions that they had earlier stated, in public, would be deliberated in regular meetings.
The Freedom of Information Act requires the public to be notified at least three days before meetings through newspaper ads, newsletters, public websites and on the Commonwealth Calendar, an electronic calendar maintained by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency.
The Petersburg City Council’s most recent meeting last Wednesday was advertised within less than 24 hours — which is permitted under special circumstances, interim City Attorney Mark Flynn said.
“Three days, that’s the general rule. But this code provision doesn’t apply to emergency and special meetings that can be set as late as an hour before the meeting,” Flynn said.
On Wednesday, the council met on short notice to accommodate a developer’s deadline, Flynn said.
Then there is the concern about venues and the sometimes unusual times of these gatherings.
The bimonthly regular business meetings are set at Union Station, which has a capacity of about 300. But of the 13 special meetings since February, three were set at particularly small venues.
Two were set at the mayor’s conference room at City Hall, which has a small table that comfortably seats six to eight city officials but has no additional seating for the public.
Another meeting was held at a conference room at the Multimodal Transit Station, which is larger but provides less than a dozen seats for the public. The meeting planned for Wednesday, where state auditors will present their findings on the city’s $17 million budget gap to the council, also will be held in that room.
That meeting is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., making it the eighth among the 14 sessions since February where the council got together during work hours, making it harder for the public to attend.
Myers said the city has limited space to accommodate larger public gatherings, which forces the council to operate within its means.
“If a space is not available, then we have to work with what we got,” Myers said. “It really comes down to that.”
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said most public bodies hold meetings in the late afternoon or evening, but there is nothing that prohibits them from meeting during work hours.
“But it’s not the best idea,” she said. “You can’t have a meeting and call it a public meeting when the public is unable to attend, whether it is because of the time of the day or the location.”
But even an adequate venue and start time has not stopped Myers from prohibiting residents to address the council during meetings.
Last year, the city settled a federal lawsuit against the city and Myers involving a Petersburg man who claimed that his First Amendment rights had been violated.
The ACLU of Virginia had filed the suit on behalf of Linwood Christian, a member of a local activist group, after Myers had silenced him during the public comment portion of a regular council meeting in January 2015, citing as a reason $1,100 in unpaid fines Christian had incurred during an unsuccessful bid for the Petersburg School Board.
In spite of this success for the local civic groups, Ben Greenbaum, a Petersburg resident who repeatedly has criticized the city’s leadership, said that even the most vocal critics rarely get something accomplished.
“It’s a moot point anyway. We are just sitting here knowing it’s an accident or planned crash that is going to happen, but we can’t do anything about it,” Greenbaum said. “You have to sit there and watch it take place in slow motion.”