Is Steven Morelli, who resigned in disgrace from the Augusta County Board of Supervisors back in March, gearing for some sort of political comeback?
Morelli, we learned this week, submitted a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to Scott Seaton, the 1 in what is a 6-1 Board of Supervisors these days, trying to get at who Seaton keeps in regular touch with, in an obvious pound of flesh move.
According to Seaton, who broke the news of the interestingly timed FOIA request from Morelli at Wednesday’s board meeting, Morelli asked about Seaton’s communications with 16 specific individuals – the list including several local media members, critics of the county’s decision against funding body and dashboard cameras for the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office, and people associated with the controversial Nexus Services, which has been picking dumb legal fights with county leaders for going on a decade.
The request, unfortunately for Morelli, didn’t turn up anything that would benefit the former supervisor, whose March 20 resignation, we learned from an admission from BOS Chair Michael Shull at a board meeting in July, is reportedly related to allegations of sexual harassment involving Morelli.
The March 20 date is important for another reason: the BOS went into closed session during a staff briefing that day to discuss the Morelli resignation, and a recording of that closed session, made by Seaton, is the subject of another FOIA request, this one made by me, that is the subject of a civil case that will be decided next month in state court.
The reason I’m pushing for access to the recording: it seems to stand to reason that the discussion of Morelli’s resignation, made official the morning preceding the staff briefing, could very well have included strategies for how to handle the potential fallout, both for Morelli, individually, and for the BOS as an entity.
It’s been my contention that this kind of discussion wouldn’t be proper under the state’s FOIA law permitting governing bodies to go into closed session.
A Virginia FOIA advisory body happens to agree with me on that point.
“It is important to consider the public policy behind the creation of exemptions for certain public records and meetings generally. In no instance are the exemptions created purely for the convenience of the public body, or to allow a public body to keep somewhat embarrassing or sensitive issues out of the public light. Instead, each of the records and meetings exemptions was enacted to benefit the public in some way,” a 2003 advisory opinion from the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council informs us.
The county is fighting me tooth and nail on this, using a state liability insurance carrier to hire a talented veteran attorney with expertise in local government law who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court to represent it in court, and promising at the end of a Sept. 5 hearing in Augusta County General District Court that it will appeal in the event that it were to lose.
Which, of course, is fair.
It also seems a bit excessive – not only seeking to utilitize outside counsel to handle the case, when the county already has a county attorney making $153,000 a year to represent its interests, but everything to how the county has handled the Morelli resignation, and the controversies that the other six in the 6-1 BOS have generated involving Seaton.
Honestly, there is no FOIA request from me or anybody else for access to the recording of the March 20 meeting if the six don’t make it public that Seaton had confided to them, ironically, as it turns out, in closed session, that he had been recording closed sessions the past couple of years to allow him to take notes on what was being discussed in the sessions.
They did that to try to shame Seaton as they maneuvered to censure him, and as a group of board members were recruiting a candidate to challenge Seaton in the November elections.
The law of unintended consequences would seem to apply here: in the effort to extract that pound of flesh from Seaton, the county and the BOS opened up the possibility of having whatever it was they had to say in the March 20 closed session in which they discussed damage control from the Morelli resignation being made public.
Which gets us back to Morelli, and his recent FOIA request of Seaton.
That FOIA request is the first we’ve heard from Morelli publicly since the resignation.
Not that he necessarily intended the FOIA request to Seaton to end up being made public, of course.
This gambit would seem to be just the latest misstep in the months-long series of clumsy efforts by county leaders to neutralize its most vocal critic.
The best advice to them would seem to be along the lines of, Maybe just quit while you’re still ahead, not that they’re ahead, but the way this is going, things haven’t hit rock bottom on this yet, and it might be best to just cut bait and move on.
I don’t expect that to happen; this is just going to get uglier.