WINCHESTER — In the past two months, City Council has convened three executive sessions in violation of state code.
When contacted by The Winchester Star on Thursday afternoon, Mayor and council President David Smith, who runs all council meetings, said he was unaware of the violation and believed everything had been handled in accordance with the law.
Shortly after 5 p.m., city officials sent out a media release acknowledging the oversights and vowing to do better in the future.
Virginia's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), detailed in Section 2.2-3700 of the Code of Virginia, states that no governing body can enter into a closed-door meeting without first voting in an open meeting as to whether the session is necessary and in compliance with state law.
"At the conclusion of any closed meeting, the public body holding such meeting shall immediately reconvene in an open meeting and shall take a roll call or other recorded vote to be included in the minutes of that body, certifying that to the best of each member's knowledge (i) only public business matters lawfully exempted from open meeting requirements under this chapter and (ii) only such public business matters as were identified in the motion by which the closed meeting was convened were heard, discussed or considered in the meeting by the public body," the code states.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic forcing officials to close Rouss City Hall to the public, in-person open meetings were held before and after every executive session.
Since City Council meetings have switched to videoconference in recent months due to the pandemic, the public should have been able to watch a live broadcast of the votes that were taken before and after each executive session. However, there was no public telecast before or after any of these closed-door meetings:
- June 9 at 4:30 p.m. — A discussion regarding board and committee appointments.
- July 14 at 5:30 p.m. — A discussion regarding property acquisition for street and stormwater management.
- July 28 at 5 p.m. — A discussion regarding candidates for city manager.
Smith said on Thursday he was under the assumption the city's Innovation and Information Services Department had publicly broadcast the open meetings that were held before and after each executive session.
No public links for the open meetings were posted on the city's website, winchesterva.gov, and as of Thursday afternoon, Winchester had not publicly shared any recorded videos of the public votes taken before and after the three sessions.
The Star has learned that no actions were taken as a direct result of any of the closed-door discussions.
Prior to the July 28 executive session, The Star sent a message to Winchester Communications Director Amy Simmons asking if council planned to mention that night's executive session during its regular business meeting that began at 6 p.m. Simmons responded that she would check, but nothing was said about the session by Smith or the other eight councilors during the business meeting.
Interim City Manager Mary Beth Price said on Thursday afternoon the city intends to look into the situation and, if necessary, take appropriate steps to remedy the mistakes.
Confirmation of the mistakes came on Thursday evening in an email from Simmons.
"We've been working diligently to ensure there is adequate public access to all open virtual meetings, but we now realize this hasn't occurred during the open portions of last several virtual special meetings of the Winchester Common Council where council entered into and came out of closed session," Simmons wrote. "Transparency and following Virginia Freedom of Information Act laws are very important to us and we apologize for this accidental oversight. Moving forward, city staff will ensure that there is proper public access to all public meetings of the city of Winchester Common Council and council-appointed boards, commissions and authorities."
According to the Code of Virginia, FOIA violations are punishable by "a civil penalty of not less than $500 nor more than $2,000, which amount shall be paid into the Literary Fund. For a second or subsequent violation, such civil penalty shall be not less than $2,000 nor more than $5,000."