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Legality of council action challenged

The Farmville Town Council may not have been in accordance with state law with regard to its reason for initiating a closed meeting during its June 18 continued council meeting.

The fact the open part of the continued council meeting was not live-streamed, like the council’s other meetings have been during the COVID-19 pandemic, has also drawn questions.

During the June 18 meeting, the council adopted the 2020-21 town budget, then went into a closed meeting and emerged from that to unanimously vote for the removal of the Confederate soldier statue located at the intersection of High and Randolph streets.

The continued council meeting began at 7 p.m., and by 7:30 p.m., shortly after the unanimous removal vote, town employees were removing the Confederate statue from its pedestal.

An audio recording of the open part of the June 18 meeting, provided by the town, revealed the exemption that was being used to explain why the council was going into a closed meeting. It was read by Ward E Councilman J.J. “Jamie” Davis to Mayor David Whitus.

“Mr. Mayor, I move that council go into closed meeting pursuant to section 2.2-3711(A)(3) of the Code of Virginia for discussion and consideration of real property for a public purpose where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the strategy of the Town of Farmville,” he said.

What follows is a quote, in full, of the exemption the council used to discuss the statue’s removal in a closed meeting:

“Discussion or consideration of the acquisition of real property for a public purpose, or of the disposition of publicly held real property, where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body.”

Virginia Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Megan Rhyne said this section of the Code of Virginia is designed to protect the government in a negotiation over the price of buying or selling land. Years ago, it used to be a much broader exemption — to cover “use of” property — but it was changed to cover “acquisition” and “disposition” only.

“The idea behind 2.2-3711(A)(3) is that you don’t want the party negotiating with the government to know what the government is or is not willing to pay because, if they did know, they might try to get the government to pay more, or sell for cheaper, which would hurt the taxpayers,” Rhyne said.

Farmville Town Manager Dr. C. Scott Davis confirmed the town owns both the Confederate monument and the property it has been located on.

This point was also made by At-Large Councilman Thomas M. Pairet. A piece of state legislation giving localities control of what to do with Confederate monuments goes into effect July 1, and Pairet explained why the town was able to act before then.

“It’s my understanding the town did it’s homework as far as the statue is actually legally owned by the Town of Farmville, so consequently it was on town property, so it’s my understanding that we could do as we see fit with it,” he said.

Rhyne said it is these facts that make inappropriate the stated reason for the closed meeting involving discussion of the statue’s removal.

“If it’s town property and they can do whatever they want to with it, there is no ‘negotiating strategy’ — note, it’s not just ‘strategy,’ it’s ‘negotiating strategy’ — or ‘bargaining position’ to protect,” she said.

Gary Elder, a lawyer who represents the Town of Farmville, declined to comment on the matter.

Mayor Whitus had not responded to an inquiry on the matter by press time.

Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the town hall remains closed. The way for the public to attend council meetings is through electronic means, and the town has been facilitating that by live-streaming on its Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Town Manager Davis said the June 18 continued council meeting was not streamed live because it was going to be short in nature.

“If meetings have been live-streamed prior to this one, there needs to be a good explanation for why this one wasn’t,” Rhyne said. “‘It was short’ is not a good reason. A meeting’s length does not define the importance of what actions are taken. As has happened here, a major decision can be made in a very short amount of time.”