Michael Shull learned a hard lesson at Wednesday’s Augusta County Board of Supervisors meeting: don’t ask a political question in a public setting if you don’t already know the answer.
Because if you do, and you get an answer that you didn’t want to hear, you might have to quickly gavel the meeting over and hope nobody is taking receipts.
This story is the receipts.
Setting the scene: Shull, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, was, again, picking a dumb fight with Scott Seaton, the Wayne District supervisor, on behalf of the rest of the board over the disclosure dating back to May that Seaton had been recording the board’s closed sessions.
Keep in mind that we only know that Seaton had been recording closed sessions because his fellow board members decided to raise a stink about it publicly.
And that we only know that one of those closed sessions, held on March 20, involved a discussion of the resignation of Steven Morelli, and that the discussion involved accusations of sexual harassment aimed at Morelli as being a possible reason for the resignation, because Shull himself confirmed that with a careless comment in a July 13 BOS meeting.
Because of those two acts – the effort to make public issue of the recordings, and Shull’s confirmation that the March 20 meeting involved something that probably should have been discussed in open session – the county is now facing a lawsuit in state court.
More background: Seaton has maintained that he began recording BOS meetings after being caught off-guard during one closed session when the county administrator, Tim Fitzgerald, informed board members that he had executed a contract on behalf of the county that Seaton didn’t remember the board having voted to authorize.
Shull, BOS Vice Chair Jeff Slaven and Beverley Manor District Supervisor Butch Wells, for some reason, decided that this issue needed to be relitigated at this week’s board meeting.
It didn’t end well, their effort at that.
“I just have one small simple request, I think it’d be a simple request for Dr. Seaton,” Wells began, an hour and a half into the meeting, basically as the meeting was set to wrap up.
Addressing Seaton, “When you first brought up the dog issues, and referred to us as co-conspirators, you also brought up the fact that our county administrator had administered or closed on a contract without the board’s knowledge. And you also referred to it again and your letters to the FBI and the Department of Justice on August the 1st. I’ve been hounding Mr. Fitzgerald to find out what contract you were talking about, and staff is putting in a lot of time trying to find out, and are not having much success locating anything like that,” Wells said.
“Mr. Fitzgerald, I think sent you a text or an email, Sept. 8, asking you if you give him any more guidance or clarification on what you were talking about, and he hadn’t received any feedback from you yet. Could you please respond to that for him?” Wells said.
“We don’t have any minutes of the closed session, so it’s very difficult to figure out what contract it was because we have no minutes of the closed session. So, it’s kind of an inability to provide that,” Seaton responded.
“So, if we have some minutes, or some notes, we might be able to figure it out. But it was in that first year,” Seaton said. “I remember looking at another board member, and we were trying to figure out if that, did we give permission, because I don’t remember giving permission, you know, so that was the situation.”
Keep what Seaton had to say about about “another board member” in your back pocket.
That will come up again later.
But at this point in the meeting, the issue seemed to recede as the board moved on to discuss other business for the next 15 minutes.
Then Fitzgerald got things back on track.
This had to have been planned out ahead of time, the way things played out here.
“I would just like to clear up, I’ve already addressed this question about a contract at a previous meeting, but want to be clear tonight. I have not ever and will not ever sign a contract without this board’s approval. I don’t believe that contract exists. And we’ll make it public record tonight. So, that’s what I’ve got to say,” Fitzgerald said, out of the blue.
Literally the topic ahead of Fitzgerald going there had been five minutes of updates on various and sundry county infrastructure projects.
Seaton jumped in after Fitzgerald was done with his statement to say that he is “very inclined to agree” with the county administrator that there was no wrongdoing on his part.
“But what stimulated me to record, I had a doubt there. And knowing that you didn’t repeat it ever after that, and not that you did it in the first place, but I never saw you do it subsequently,” Seaton said. “So, that was just a reason why I recorded six meetings in the first two years that I was here, you know, because I was concerned about whether those, so let’s just make it clear, I don’t know, I don’t remember what contract it was. But I remember there was at one point, I had a doubt, and another member of this board had a doubt about that.”
After some crosstalk between Fitzgerald and Seaton, the administrator took a tone with the supervisor that you don’t always see, given that a county administrator works for the Board of Supervisors, not the other way around.
“You brought up and made an accusation that the administrator signed the contract without board approval. I took exception that night, and I take exception today, because it didn’t happen, right. And so that’s where it ends. It just simply didn’t happen,” Fitzgerald said.
A back and forth followed between Seaton, Slaven and Wells over the recordings that featured Wells offering a “word of warning” to Seaton: “be careful.”
Which, no, that’s not ominous at all.
This is where Shull asked the question that he didn’t know the answer to.
“It’s on those that go to make accusations unless you can prove it. And you refer to another supervisor there that conferred with you on the contract. Who is that supervisor?” Shull asked Seaton.
Pastures District Supervisor Pam Carter raised her hand.
“I had a question about that, but I had a conversation with … Mr. Fitzgerald, and he cleared it out. It was a simple conversation,” Carter said.
Shull quickly adjourned the meeting at this point, at risk of further losing control of the narrative, which was that it was just Seaton who’d had a question about the contract issue.
That turned out not to emphatically not be the case.
One supervisor who’d had a question about the contract talked with the county administrator to clear the issue up.
The second decided to start recording meetings to serve as his notes to make sure that he didn’t miss the next big thing, if there would be a next big thing.
The other five seem to have a problem with anybody asking questions.