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Seaton, Augusta County BOS raise the stakes in battle for government transparency

Chris Graham
augusta county board of supervisors
Photo: Facebook

Scott Seaton handed over a thumb drive with copies of recordings of closed sessions of the Augusta Country Board of Supervisors Wednesday night, but what he didn’t hand over is the big news.

Seaton, who represents the Wayne District on the Board of Supervisors, is maintaining custody and control of the originals of his recordings, and wants to see the county assent to the release of the recordings of two meetings from this year, which he hinted have to do with the resignation of a now-former member of the BOS.

“There seems to be a great deal of interest for what’s on this thumb drive right here,” Seaton said as he handed the thumb drive with the copies of the recordings to Deputy County Administrator Jennifer Whetzel, the county’s Freedom of Information Act officer, at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Wednesday night.

Seaton told BOS members that he has also turned over correspondence regarding the recordings to the U.S. Department of Justice, saying he’s sharing his personal recordings of the closed sessions, which date back two years, “because it is required, and it’s the right thing to do, so procedures can be followed, and so that a judge may be able to release some of the recordings.”

“I have received Freedom of Information requests, and the county FOIA office will determine if any of the meetings will be released,” Seaton said.

Augusta Free Press has filed two FOIA requests related to the recordings – one specifically for the recording of the March 20 closed session held the day that Steven Morelli resigned his South River seat, and a broader request for access to all of the recordings of closed sessions in Seaton’s possession.

Under the state’s FOIA law, the county is required to respond to our requests within five working days, so in the case of our requests, that would be the end of this week, though there are provisions in state code for governing bodies that receive a request under FOIA to get an extension on that five-working-day deadline.

“The public deserves to hear some of these meetings, particularly when the topic is the Board of Supervisors, such as the March 20 and the June 2, 2023, meetings, because I don’t believe that an elected official should have the same personnel exemption protection as county employees. But that will be up to a judge to determine, if a decision is appealed,” Seaton said Wednesday.

Yes, we are working on a third FOIA request, specific to the June 2 meeting that Seaton referenced in his comments at this week’s meeting.

And yes, if the county decides to fight the release, we’ll fight back, as far up the chain as we have to.

Bring it on, basically.

I’ve got more money than I’ve got sense, in that respect.

Notably, Seaton made a motion at Wednesday’s meeting to require the Board of Supervisors to record all of its closed sessions, to provide a working record of what was discussed, the purpose, he said, being to build a public record of what business is discussed.

“Currently, no official notes are taken, and the public has no recourse or documentation if the meetings are found improper,” said Seaton, whose motion to that effect, not surprisingly, was defeated in a rote 6-1 vote of the BOS.

The standoff between Seaton and the other six members of the board dates to March, when Seaton first raised issue with the lack of a supporting ordinance in the county code allowing the regional animal shelter to assess fees and fines on pet owners.

The issue between Seaton and the rest of the board came to a head at the July 13 BOS meeting, which saw the board vote 6-1 to censure Seaton, citing a claim not related to the animal-shelter issue, specifically that he had revealed information from the March 20 closed session about Morelli to members of the local media.

Comically, the dates cited in that original censure resolution were off by two months, requiring cleanup work by the board that had to be tabled at a July 27 BOS meeting because a replacement resolution prepared ahead of the meeting to take care of the housekeeping matter still had the dates wrong.

The dates were finally corrected in an amended resolution of censure that was approved by the board Wednesday night.

The board held a specially called meeting last week to pass another resolution requesting “possession, custody and control” of Seaton’s closed-session recordings, which he said he began making because “during one unrecorded closed session, the county administrator had announced he proceeded with a contract, when I didn’t recall the board giving him consent, but couldn’t get other board members to agree with me, though some look puzzled by the announcement.”

The county administrator, Tim Fitzgerald, vehemently denied that charge later in Wednesday’s meeting.

“Dr. Seaton insinuated that I signed a contract outside of the board’s approval, and I’m here to tell the folks here and tell folks at home that has never happened,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s not something I do as an administrator. I do not act unless this board gives me the responsibility and the duty to do so. And I can tell you for a fact that hasn’t happened. And have that insinuated tonight in a public forum, in front of a public body, that that may have happened, was not appreciated. I want to say that tonight, because this certainly did not happen, Doc Seaton.”

Fitzgerald went on to say that the county attorney, James R. Benkahla, is involved in “every closed session we have,” and “if the discussion gets toward things not into the identified call, the attorney calls us out and says hey, you can’t discuss that here, you got to discuss it outside.”

“After each one of those closed sessions, if you’re here at the end of those meetings, you will hear the chairman ask for a vote for all the board members to certify,” Fitzgerald said. “What they are doing is they are certifying that what they discussed in closed session was only what was on that call to go into closed session. And this board has always certified when they come out, with the exception of one meeting, where we had Dr. Seaton not certify. All the other closed sessions that this board has been involved in, they have certified when they come out of closed session that they only discussed what was allowed in closed session. I wanted to share that with you so that you understand closed sessions, the ability to go in closed sessions in a local government. All local governments do this. It is something we have to do in order to be able to operate our government.”

Seaton isn’t challenging all closed sessions, really just two – the ones on March 20 and June 2, that he is saying included discussions of supervisor conduct that should have been done in public session.

It’s probably important to note here that Seaton is the only member of the BOS to have an opponent in the November county elections, and that his challenger, John Higgs, is on the record saying that he was recruited against Seaton to run by members of the Board of Supervisors.

The issue between Seaton and the rest of the board appears to be about the transparency that Seaton wants to see and whatever the opposite of transparency is that the other six want to protect.

“Until the residents of our county insist upon transparency and change the leadership in the county, the county government will do whatever it wants, until the residents discover the illegal activities and report them to a higher authorities. And hopefully those authorities will act whether by judicial or executive powers to preserve our constitutional rights and force our county to follow Virginia code, county ordinances and its own bylaws,” Seaton said.

“I still trust the system,” Seaton said. “I don’t regret recording these closed meetings. I trust the citizens to hold me and the board accountable for statements made during these closed meetings. And in conclusion, our local government needs retraining on the rights of our residents. And our residents are ready for a mature government that responds to the residents instead of hiding from them.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].