(AP) A group of elected officials in Southwest Virginia violated the state’s open government law during meetings about dissolving a public library system, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled May 28 in a case long delayed by a lawmaker’s use of a privilege of his office.
State Del. Jeff Campbell, who is also an attorney in private practice, represented the Smyth County Board of Supervisors in the lawsuit brought by the head of a nonprofit that promotes the library.
The court ruled that the board had improperly entered into closed sessions and exceeded the scope of subjects it was allowed to discuss in closed meetings.
Paul Morrison, attorney for Beverly Cole, the president of the Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library, said while he was pleased with the decision, the fact that the case took so long to come to a resolution means the board now has many new members. The ones who made the error won’t have to face the fallout, he said.
“It sounds so cliché to say justice delayed is justice denied, but it’s really true,” he said.
Attorneys who serve in Virginia’s General Assembly or work there have broad discretion to obtain continuances in their cases “as a matter of right” under certain conditions. The Associated Press, citing court records obtained through a public records request, has previously reported that Campbell routinely uses that privilege to delay court proceedings, and has done so at least nine times in a domestic violence case against a former NASCAR driver.
Campbell, a Republican who represents Smyth, Carroll and Wythe counties, has largely declined comment on his use of continuances. He could not immediately be reached May 28.
In the library case, the appeal was filed to the Supreme Court on April 9, 2018. Campbell quickly asked for, and was granted, a continuance. And then Morrison and his client waited.
“Since granting Appellees’ counsel an indefinite extension, over 500 days have elapsed, and counsel for the Appellees has elected to not file a response to this appeal,” Morrison wrote in a motion filed with the court last fall seeking to compel Campbell to respond.
At the same time, Campbell was “appearing regularly as counsel of record in cases he chooses to pursue,” the motion said.
The justices scheduled oral arguments on Morrison’s motion to compel, but Campbell then filed his brief with the court, making the motion moot.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in February and did not question Campbell about the delay.
“Thank you for listening to this case,” Morrison told the justices. “It’s been 726 days, so thank you for taking the time to hear us.”
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the ruling should be a good reminder for both state and local governments that they must give the public specifics about what’s to be discussed before going into a closed session — and stick to the topic at hand.
“Luckily there was this person who questioned it, and so you do have some sort of indication of what was discussed, but ultimately the public was deprived of that conversation,” she said.
The Smyth County board voted in 2017 to disband the regional library system. The county now has its own library system, but Morrison said the decision had funding implications.
On the issue of attorney’s fees, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the circuit court “for it to determine whether Cole is entitled to an award of attorney’s fees and costs … and, if so entitled, the amount of such fees and costs.”
-SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press