‘People want to be here:’ Bowman pushes for closed-session reform

Published 5:27 pm Friday, February 10, 2023

Mayor Steve Bowman has proposed, and in one case already implemented, reforms to how Smithfield’s Town Council conducts closed meetings.

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act lists 54 exemptions to its requirement that governmental meetings be open to the public. Local governing bodies are allowed, but not required, to meet privately provided they, while still in open session, state the closed session’s purpose and cite the applicable exemption.

Smithfield, for years, has ushered the public out of the council chamber and into the hallway of The Smithfield Center during closed sessions, which have traditionally been held at the conclusion of the open-session portion of the Town Council’s monthly meetings.

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At the council’s Feb. 7 meeting, rather than asking the public to leave, Bowman asked the council members to accompany him to a nearby room.

“I think that certain people want to be here when we come back out of closed session,” Bowman said.

The Feb. 7 closed session, which lasted for just over 30 minutes, was for the stated purpose of “discussion, consideration, or interview of prospective candidates for employment; assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining, or resignation of specific public officers, appointees, or employees of any public body” and “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” as allowed under state law.

Upon returning to open session, the council announced that Town Treasurer Ellen Minga had resigned and directed Town Manager Michael Stallings to advertise for a replacement.

“On behalf of the Smithfield Town Council and Staff, we extend our heartfelt thanks to Ellen

Minga for her many years of dedicated service to the Town of Smithfield and its residents,” Stallings stated in a Feb. 10 press release. “Ms. Minga has resigned her position effective March 31, 2023. Ms. Minga has served as the Town’s Treasurer for twenty years. Her dedication to the Town of Smithfield for the past two decades has helped Smithfield become what it is today.”

Bowman has also proposed moving closed sessions from the end of each meeting to the beginning.

“As the chair, I do have a little bit of purview over the agenda,” Bowman said. “I don’t like that the closed sessions are being held as the last item.”

Currently, Town Council meetings begin at 6:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month. Town Manager Michael Stallings couldn’t say as of Feb. 7 whether the change would entail the meetings starting earlier.

Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors and School Board each begin their monthly meetings at 5 p.m., hold an hour-long closed session, and reconvene for the public portion at 6 p.m.

Last fall, the Town Council voted to commit up to $1.4 million toward moving the Smithfield Farmers Market to former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph Luter III’s proposed “Grange at 10Main” development and another $1 million to expand and upgrade the Joseph W. Luter Jr. Sports Complex on West Main Street named for Luter III’s father, after holding a closed session for the stated purpose of discussing “contract negotiations.”

Luter III had offered land and a $1 million contribution toward building a permanent home for the market conditioned on the town and Isle of Wight County jointly raising another $2.7 million. According to former Mayor Carter Williams, the town had received a $3 million “private donation” to fund the Luter Sports Complex upgrades, conditioned on the town putting up an additional $1 million of taxpayer money.

At an October forum featuring the five Town Council candidates vying for four seats up for election in November, then-candidate Bowman asserted that closed-session discussions should be used “very judiciously and only as a last resort,” and stated he would have opposed the closed session that preceded the two $1 million-plus votes.