What was discussed in the March 20 Augusta County Board of Supervisors closed session that is the subject of an ongoing state court case?
Well, for starters, we know with certainty that the discussion was about the resignation of Steve Morelli, who had been elected to represent the South River District on the Board of Supervisors in 2019.
The county conceded that point in a Sept. 5 hearing in Augusta County General District Court in the Freedom of Information Act case that I have filed against the county to get access to a recording of the March 20 closed session.
We also know, from a comment made by the board’s chair, Michael Shull, in a July 12 Board of Supervisors meeting, that the discussion involved sexual harassment allegations against Morelli.
So, putting the two together, the board went into closed session on March 20 to discuss the resignation that morning of an elected board member who had been accused of sexual harassment.
That’s what we know.
Here’s where we have to begin to dive into what we don’t know.
First, why? As in, why did the sexual harassment allegations against Morelli need to be discussed behind closed doors, and not in an open session?
It’s being speculated in the local chattering class that board members wanted to be able to talk about the Morelli resignation in private so that they could strategize how to have the matter basically blow over, the idea being that the passage of time could give Morelli the opportunity to repair whatever he needed to repair so that he could, at some point down the line, make a triumphant return to the county politics scene.
If this was the motivation, it could explain the strong response from the BOS majority directed at Scott Seaton, the Wayne District supervisor, who after the March 20 closed session, and after a brief statement from County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald announcing publicly that Morelli had resigned his seat that morning, alluded to “victims,” which is what signaled to the outside world that the Morelli matter wasn’t a run-of-the-mill political resignation.
The other six members of the board eventually voted, in July, to censure Seaton, alleging that he had communicated details of the closed session – the censure resolution specifically noting “public sharing of information that has been discussed during their closed meetings.”
The push to censure Seaton led to the revelation from Seaton that he had been recording closed sessions of the board dating back two years, to aid his note taking, he said.
That revelation from Seaton, ironically, made to BOS members in another closed session, became public knowledge, again, ironically, when board members made it public, as part of their case to justify the censure vote.
The existence of the recordings, in turn, led to efforts by several members of the community, including me, to seek access to them via requests under the state’s FOIA law.
If you haven’t heard of the Streisand Effect, well, this is a textbook example of it.
Next, to a second thing we don’t know: was there more to what board members said in the closed session than just strategizing how the story could just go away?
Seems a fair question.
The county sure is fighting the FOIA request hard, using a liability insurance policy to pay for a veteran local government attorney to argue its case in state court, and promising to appeal if Judge Rupen R. Shah rules against the county when he hands down his decision in the case next week.
We’re to believe that the county is fighting tooth and nail as a matter of principle – the principle appearing to be, we can go into closed session for any reason we want, and we dare anybody to challenge us.
But, what if there’s more to what was said behind closed doors than something that was maybe just embarrassing?
I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what could be more than just embarrassing from that closed session that the county wouldn’t want made public.
A third thing we don’t know: why Morelli submitted his own FOIA to Seaton.
This tidbit sure came out of left field. Morelli, we learned last week, made a FOIA request of Seaton to get access to Seaton’s communications with the local media and a list of county critics.
That Morelli didn’t get what he was probably hoping for – evidence that Seaton is in cahoots with the media and the far left – is beside the point.
Related question here, tying into our first one: does this move by Morelli tie into what some in the chattering class have tried to say in regard to the March 20 closed session being about strategizing ways to get the resignation news to blow over so that he could make a return to the politics scene at some point down the road?
The blowing over part to this has now officially jumped the shark.
I mean, it’s fair to assume that Morelli wouldn’t have expected Seaton to reveal publicly that he’d received a FOIA request from Morelli, but it’s out there now.
We don’t know where Morelli expected this gambit to lead, but we can probably safely say that the reports of his political demise were grossly exaggerated.
At least as of the minute that he hit send on his FOIA request to Seaton, anyway.