The Purcellville Town Council met in closed session for more than an hour last week to briefed on the status of an investigation by an outside law firm into allegations of misconduct by a staff member and two councilmen.
The Jan. 11 closed session motion stated the council would be seeking to determine whether discipline was warranted following complaints made by Councilman Stanley J. Milan and Vice Mayor Christopher Bertaut about the conduct of a staff member in an overheard conversation with a developer, and a complaint filed by an anonymous staff member about public comments made by Milan and Bertaut about the incident.
The town retained the law firm of Harman Clayton Corrigan & Wellman to investigate the complaints and attorney Melissa Y. York was identified as joining the meeting to present the briefing.
The issue surfaced publicly during the Nov. 9 Town Council meeting when Milan stated that he overheard a conversation between a staff member and a developer following the Oct. 21 Planning Commission meeting. While everyone had left the meeting room, the conversation was picked up on a microphone in the room. Milan said he listened to the conversation for about an hour and a half.
“I overheard statements from the staffer that really shocked me. It surprised me a little but not totally. The staffer talked about the planning commission, council inefficiencies. He made statements about his professional experience and that he wouldn’t take direction from any CCB [the town’s abbreviation for advisory commissions, committees and boards]. And statements like ‘I have them looking at the red shiny ball—hey look over here—when the real issue is over there.’ And he also made the statement to ‘wait a few election cycles to get what you need,’” Milan said at the Nov. 9 meeting. “This is a private conversation after a Planning Commission meeting where we rely on this person’s professionalism and insight into the direction the planning commission should take. And when you hear these comments that are disingenuine, the efforts of the Planning Commission and Town Council it shakes your confidence in what you are being presented. Are we constantly being presented with shiny balls or shiny red balls that distract us from the issues at hand? And I will be referring these issues to the Commonwealth’s Attorney. They need to be taken seriously.”
Bertaut said he also listened to the conversation. “I too hung around after that meeting and heard some of these disturbing comments that took place between a couple individuals. And I can concur that I heard the comment about holding up a big shiny ball in order to distract the public. I heard the comment about not taking direction from the CCBs. I heard a somewhat disturbing comment that went along the lines of ‘when people are happy and comfortable they don’t care what’s going on outside the walls of their property.’ And perhaps most disturbing of all I also heard one comment that kind of shook me to the core, it was ‘tell me what you want to do and I’ll make it happen.’ And I consider none of these to be in the spirit of cooperation, of respect for one another’s roles within this community,” Bertaut said.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser, at that meeting, said he would reserve judgment until more information was available.
Following the Jan. 11 closed session, only one councilmember commented on the session.
“It is difficult not to be appalled after reading and hearing that,” Councilman Tip Stennette said. “I don’t doubt the veracity of what has been reported or spoken about. That said, I wasn’t there, and I don’t know the context of the chain of events firsthand. What I do know is that what is seems to be is appalling to me. But I also know that what seems to be may not in fact be. With that in mind, I look forward to the conclusion of independent collection of objective evidence, a thorough review of relevant parties, and the reconstruction of the chain of events before arriving at a conclusion and rendering a judgment, which, it should be noted is fully within the purview of this body in this case.”
The controversy took another turn as the council ended its closed meeting. Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act requires that when adjourning each closed session, a roll call vote be held in which each member certifies that only those matters permitted to be discussed outside of public view and specifically identified in the closed session motion were discussed. The certification motion is designed to be a firewall to prevent public bodies from straying from the narrow bounds of the FOIA allowances.
Council members Joel Grewe and Erin Rayner voted no when asked to certify that only those matters were discussed during the meeting. Fraser said he disagreed with their objections.
Virginia’s FOIA rules require that whenever a member declines to certify a closed session they must publicly state their reason on the record. That did not happen during the meeting.
Contacted by Loudoun Now after the meeting, the dissenting councilmembers said that part of the closed session conversation included comments by Milan about a series of Facebook postings Grewe made last fall publicly criticizing the conduct of Milan and other Planning Commission members, including allegations that they share of confidential information. Grewe and Rayner said the conversation, which they said was halted when objections were raised, violated the scope of the stated closed-session topics.