By Linda Cicoira
Onley Mayor Matthew D. Hart, who was publicly reprimanded in early June by the majority of the town council, is asking Accomack General District Court for an injunction regarding the way a closed hearing about him was conducted by the panel last month.
A supplemental statement, attached to Hart’s petition and filed Tuesday, alleges the council did not properly follow state code regarding special meetings. “The council cannot simply fabricate a reason for a closed meeting out of thin air,” the mayor wrote. “Nonetheless, that is exactly what the council attempted to do.”
Town Attorney Rachel Kellam said Thursday, “the majority of the town council stands behind the reason for the May 19 special closed meeting.” When asked what the injunction would do since the actions have already taken place, Kellam said, the town would learn more about Hart’s request at the June 30 hearing.
Judge Gordon Vincent, a long-time resident of the town, recused himself from the case. Kellam said she expected to hear sometime Friday if another judge has been found.
Hart stated the meeting was “conducted in violation of (the) Virginia Freedom of Information Act and therefore the meeting, as well as the matters discussed therein, was void. Since the meeting was void, the vote of council on the resolution that was creating by the void meeting should be set aside in addition to enjoining council from engaging in unlawful closed meetings,” Hart continued.
Kellam, Town Manager Jayme Salazar, Vice Mayor Henry (Ned) Finney, and Council Members Susan Rillo, Claudia Harmon, Rose Pierson, Billye D. Custis, and Woody Zember were named in the petition.
The mayor was notified ahead of time about the closed meeting and was listed on the agenda as the person who would run the session. In Onley, the main function of a mayor is to conduct council meetings. Hart did not attend. Closed sessions are allowed my state law to discuss personnel issues. The mayor and council are paid by the town for their services.
Voting in favor of the censure on June 1 were Rillo, Harmon, Custis, and Finney. Zember and Pierson abstained, but did not say why they did not want to vote. Complaints about disorderly behavior, creating a hostile work environment for contractors and workers, profanity and abusive language were among the complaints about Hart from council.
At the June session, Hart said, “I’m very sorry that … some of you feel this way. This COVID-19 time has been tough on everyone. Everyone knows I hold people to a higher standard. Nothing that was said … was inappropriate or hostile. I heard people say I was going to sue Jayme. Not true. I was just looking to have my shed repaired.” Hart was referring to damage he said was caused to his shed by a town-contracted landscaper.
At the regular May meeting things got out of hand, Harmon said.
“The biggest problem that I had was the outburst at the last meeting,” said Pierson. “I thought it was terrible. It really upset me.”
Rillo said council was informed by the Virginia Municipal League that a closed meeting was the appropriate place to discuss Hart’s actions.
“The issue is that I’m held to this guy that just runs meetings,” said Hart. “I overstepped my boundaries by trying to get more.” He wants the council to return more powers to the mayor. He was a member of the town council when those powers were taken away.