Augusta County is hiding behind a reading of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act already ruled improper by a circuit court judge to keep private what was said in texts between two members of the Board of Supervisors discussing a third member who would resign days later.
And so it is that the mystery of why county leaders don’t want us to know what they had to say behind closed doors about the March 20, 2023, resignation of South River Supervisor Steven Morelli gets another layer.
In a response dated Feb. 9 to a public-records request from AFP, Kathleen Keffer, the assistant county attorney, cited the personnel and closed-meeting exemptions in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act as the basis for the decision to redact the texts, which were from a text conversation between Pastures District Supervisor Pam Carter and Wayne District Supervisor Scott Seaton that began on March 18, and continued on March 19 and March 20.
The dates are significant, because it was on March 20 that Morelli resigned his seat on the Board of Supervisors representing the South River District, apparently in response to pressure from fellow supervisors in the wake of revelations internally about sexual-harassment allegations involving Morelli brought by one or more county government employees.
Morelli resigned his seat on the morning of March 20, and the Board of Supervisors held a closed meeting during a staff briefing held the afternoon of March 20 to discuss the resignation.
An Augusta County Circuit Court judge ruled on Jan. 11 that the board had improperly gone into closed session to discuss Morelli and ordered that the county turn over a recording of the closed session that had been made by Seaton.
The Board of Supervisors, on Jan. 24, voted to authorize the filing of an appeal of that court order.
So, yes, something that happened almost a year ago is still in legal limbo, and with the appeal, it’s almost certain that the recording of the meeting won’t be released until the spring, at the earliest.
It is those same personnel and closed-meeting exemptions that Judge Thomas J. Wilson IV ruled had been improperly used by the board to go into closed session that are now being cited by the county to hide what was said in the text conversation between Carter and Seaton.
Because of the county’s novel legal strategy – using FOIA exemptions already found by a judge to have been improperly applied to rebuff a new, entirely separate FOIA request – all we know is that Carter and Seaton communicated ahead of the March 20 meeting, and that their communications had to have involved the fate of Morelli to qualify for the cited exemptions.
Per the screenshots of the text conversation released to us, we know that Carter communicated with Seaton by text on March 18 at 7:35 p.m. – the content of what was communicated at that date and time is what was redacted – and that Seaton reached out to Carter by text on March 19 at 7:31 p.m. with the message: “Do you have a moment”.
The screenshots provided to us with the redactions also include a back-and-forth between Carter and Seaton from March 8 discussing a motion made by Carter to have the BOS begin streaming its work sessions.
“I can’t believe Morelli voted no!” Carter wrote in one text, and then in a second, she wrote: “Guess he’s afraid people will see how nasty he can be!!!”
This would seem to establish that Carter and Seaton had some kind of rapport in discussing Morelli ahead of their March 18 and March 19 texts.
Then, after whatever was said between the two in their March 18 and March 19 texts, their conversation continued on March 20, with a text from Carter to Seaton, timestamped at 11:30 a.m.
“Mike thinks he is going to resign,” Carter wrote in the message, an apparent reference to Morelli, who we know, from a previous FOIA request and response, had already at this point in time had indicated to two other members of the BOS, Gerald Garber and Jeffrey Slaven, that he had, in fact, resigned that morning.
The “Mike” in the text message would appear to be Mike Shull, the Riverheads District supervisor who was the chair of the Board of Supervisors at the time.
Seaton responded to Carter, at 12:41 p.m.: “The board still needs a statement,” to which Carter replied, “Totally agree!!!”
The BOS meeting was scheduled to begin less than an hour later, at 1:30 p.m. The agenda included the closed session in which the Morelli resignation was discussed.
The board, as it turns out, didn’t issue a statement on Morelli upon returning to open session, and hasn’t to this day.
County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald did read a brief statement at the March 20 BOS meeting reporting that Morelli had resigned, citing “personal reasons,” and saying “on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, I’d like to thank and express my sincere appreciation for Steve Morelli’s service to Augusta County.”
After the meeting, a text conversation between Morelli and Butch Wells, the Beverley Manor District supervisor, revealed through another FOIA request and response, gave us a hint as to what was discussed behind closed doors.
Morelli asked Wells if the meeting had ended, Wells told Morelli that he had “made the right decision,” and added in another text, “Going for a walk before my head explodes – I despise that woman!!!”
It would seem that the county attorney’s office might have slipped there, in letting those texts between Morelli and Wells get out into the public domain, given that the conversation directly referenced the closed meeting and what was discussed.
In case you’re wondering, that’s sarcasm on my part.