Council members attend EDA closed meeting

Published 9:50 pm Wednesday, August 19, 2015

More than two members of City Council cannot meet in private to discuss public business without having an official closed meeting, but three of them can sit in on another body’s closed meeting without violating state law.

That’s the opinion of the city attorney and a representative for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, though the latter’s Megan Rhyne said the appearance of impropriety is a concern.

“In a closed meeting, you lose those checks and balances,” Rhyne said in an emailed response to questions. The public has no way to assess for themselves whether these three are discussing public business, one by one or in a group.”

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The Suffolk News-Herald asked Rhyne for her thoughts following last week’s Economic Development Authority meeting, during which three City Council members sat in on a closed meeting that discussed the disposition of EDA-owned property at Obici Place, Suffolk Industrial Park and the Point at Harbour View, as well as an upcoming economic development opportunity.

The three members who sat in — Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett and City Council members Mike Duman and Donald Goldberg — said they did not violate any laws. Bennett and Goldberg had a conversation regarding their intent to join the meeting with City Attorney Helivi Holland outside at the start of the closed meeting.

City spokeswoman Diana Klink did not make Holland available for an interview.

“The City Attorney’s Office does not provide legal opinions or advice to anyone but City Council,” Klink wrote in an email. “The Freedom of Information Act is not violated by three member’s presence at another body’s meeting, closed or not.”

Goldberg said Holland told him more than two City Council members could be in the meeting, but only two could speak.

“I made a point not to say anything, not to make any motion, not to even breathe hardly,” Goldberg said.

He added the process is different from when he used to be on the Economic Development Authority in Chesapeake.

“Any city councilman that happened to come to my economic development meeting and we went into closed session, I just invited them in,” he said. “If they wanted me out of the closed session, all they’ve got to do is say, ‘You’re not invited.’”

Bennett also said he doesn’t say anything in the EDA meetings.

“I was told as long as no more than two people have something to say in it, it’s not considered a meeting,” he said. “When I attend meetings like that, I don’t have anything to say. I am there more to observe and for information purposes. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Duman is the official liaison from City Council to the EDA.

“I’m the only one that was appointed to be the liaison to EDA,” he said. “I do interject my opinions when it’s OK with Chairman (J. Harold) Faulk, because I don’t believe I have the right to speak unless it’s OK with him.”

Faulk did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

Duman said nobody has addressed the issue of the meetings with him directly.

“It did come in a topic of conversation,” he said. “The city attorney addressed it and explained what the rules are, and to my knowledge nobody has violated any of those rules. Anytime there’s more than one member available at any meeting, it puts you in a position to where you could have an illegal meeting in the event that more than two of those council members speak at all.”

Rhyne also wrote that a public body can invite anyone its wants to into a closed meeting.

“While I think a technical reading of the statute could allow the three of them to be in there so long as they’re just listening and not participating, it creates the appearance of impropriety and it cannot be monitored,” Rhyne wrote.