The Augusta County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to censure Wayne District Supervisor Scott Seaton, and though board members raised issue with Seaton admitting that he has been recording closed sessions of the public body, it’s not entirely certain that it was the recording thing that he was censured for.
“I thought the issue when we were discussing in the closed session back there was that it was disclosure. I didn’t think it was the recording. It was disclosure. Where you haven’t been able to find anybody that I’ve disclosed it to. That information was taken from a closed meeting out there. Find somebody that I disclosed it to. You can’t find anybody,” Seaton said after the board returned from a 30-minute closed session that, irony being what it is, had not been included on the pre-meeting public agenda.
Seaton admitted after the meeting returned to open session that he has been recording the board’s closed sessions, saying the practice, to him, is no different than “writing it down and putting it in my notebook.”
The recording issue was something that board members would later point to as being the big issue behind the censure, but it was clear from the lengthy resolution that Board Chair Michael Shull read aloud after the board had come out of the closed session that there were a number of grievances being directed at Seaton, who has been pressing the county for three months to address civil fees that have been assessed on pet owners for decades without language in the county code that would allow for that.
Boiling down the grievances from the resolution of censure, what comes across loud and clear is a distaste on the part of the majority for transparency, on the animal-control issue and more generally.
“The members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors recognize that the recording during the closed meeting is not illegal, and that Dr. Seaton has not violated any laws, by doing so. They nevertheless wish to express their grave concerns on the secret recording and public sharing of information that has been discussed during their closed meetings,” the resolution read, according to a transcript of the meeting.
“It is the opinion of the board that the breach of confidentiality and disregard of privacy of personnel may impair the county’s ability to negotiate business agreements between the County of Augusta outside entities,” the resolution went on. “As a result, the members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors find it impossible to effectively conduct the business of the county while in the presence of Dr. Scott Seaton, as the actions of Dr. Scott Seaton have resulted in a complete breach of trust and faith between him and the public, members of the board and staff. Furthermore, the board finds these actions, while not illegal, to be unprofessional, unethical, and leave in question his ability to be an effective member of the Board of Supervisors.”
The motion was approved by a 6-1 vote, with Seaton, not surprisingly, being the “1.”
Along with the censure, the Board of Supervisors also voted to remove Seaton from serving on boards and commissions that he had been serving on, with that deletion effective through the end of the calendar year, which coincides with the end of his current four-year term.
Seaton’s seat is up for re-election in November, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s the only incumbent on the ballot who has a challenger – local businessman John R. Higgs is on the ballot in the Wayne District.
As it turns out, the update to the county code regarding animal control that Seaton has been advocating for was on the agenda for Wednesday night’s meeting, and a brief discussion on the matter preceded the closed session – though clearly the animal-shelter fees that Seaton has been calling “illegal” were not first and foremost on the minds of county leaders.
“I will say this is not about the dog issue. This is about the closed session. This is about being recorded for two years that I didn’t know that I was recorded,” said Shull, who was the only member of the six who voted to censure Seaton to speak on the matter in the public session, though supervisors Jeff Slaven and Butch Wells did speak afterwards with members of the local media.
“I’m not accusing him of doing anything illegal. It’s more ethical, man,” Wells told The News Leader. “You’ve gotta have trust in this job to be able to, you know, work together. He’s lost my trust.”
“It’s the conversations we have about people who aren’t government people,” Slaven told the Leader. “It’s our staff, our employees here, things that affect their lives that aren’t for discussion all around the county.”
What Slaven seems to be vaguely trying to get at there appears to be related to something that Shull also vaguely tried to get at in the discussion after the closed session.
Shull referenced how “several board members were asked about one case of sexual harassment, and I was asked that when I came right over here, several other board members were, too. And I thought, did they have a tin can against the wall listening to us there? How was that knowledge disclosed that quickly?”
Since Shull brought it up in a public forum, it’s fair to spell out what he’s referencing there. There were questions raised in county government and politics circles around the time that Steven Morelli announced his resignation from the Board of Supervisors in March as to exactly why Morelli was stepping down.
Nothing was ever confirmed, but it’s not like people weren’t talking about what might have happened, and the idea that a few people in a closed room would be the only ones in a county of 77,563 residents talking about it strains credulity.
“I did not share any confidential information. The board thinks I shared confidential information from one of our closed sessions, and that’s not true. And they can’t find anybody. They don’t like the fact that for 31 years our county has been charging people illegal fees and fining people, there’s been no due process, and they won’t admit it,” said Seaton, later adding that he feels “if there are differences public elected public officials” on issues like the animal-control ordinance, “those should be debated in public, not in closed sessions.”
“Everybody has the right to question their government officials and all these sources,” Seaton said. “You’re saying that should be illegal, that’s absurd, that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a good thing because there needs to be more sunlight on this government, whether it’s the county, whether it’s the state, whether it’s two cities, we need to have more sunlight, not less sunlight. When we hide in the dark, that’s our problem.”