The five Democrats on the Prince William Board of County Supervisors are facing a new civil lawsuit alleging they held an illegal meeting with police and community leaders in the wake of civil rights protests in May.
The county’s lawyer has previously denied that the supervisor’s meeting violated state law.
Alan Gloss, Carol Fox and Tammy Spinks filed the lawsuit July 31 in Prince William County Circuit Court against Board Chair Ann Wheeler and supervisors Victor Angry, Neabsco District; Margaret Franklin, Woodbridge District; Kenny Boddye, Occoquan District; and Andrea Bailey, Potomac District, regarding the meeting held May 31.
The nonprofit organization Judicial Watch has joined the three local residents in their lawsuit, according to a news release. Judicial Watch promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law through public outreach, lawsuits and investigations, according to its website.
“Now, more than ever, citizens need transparency in their government. Secret meetings on police policy undermines public confidence and violates the law,” said Tom Fitton, the nonprofit’s president.
Christopher Kachouroff, an attorney with McSweeney, Cynkar & Kachouroff, PLLC, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Gloss, Fox and Spinks.
During a hearing on a similar lawsuit filed by Gloss in June, County Attorney Michele Robl said she was prepared to show that the board did not hold an unlawful meeting May 31. Gloss withdrew the earlier suit June 15. The first suit named all eight members of the board as defendants, while the new lawsuit names only the five supervisors who attended.
“All five Democrat supervisors attended the meeting, but the board’s three Republican members were not notified of the meeting and did not attend,” according to Judicial Watch’s news release.
The meeting at the center of the lawsuit was the day after a large protest in the Manassas-area against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The protest began at 5 p.m. with peaceful demonstrators, but police eventually declared an unlawful assembly and attempted to clear the demonstrators, who numbered about 250 at the highest point.
State troopers used “non-lethal tactics, such as OC 'pepper' spray and powder" in attempts to control the crowd, state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said at the time. Five people were arrested and seven law enforcement officers, including county and state police, were injured, according to police.
Wheeler declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday. Wheeler told InsideNoVa in June the supervisors didn’t violate state’s law by attending the meeting. Wheeler said at the time that she was invited to the meeting by County Executive Christopher Martino after she requested a meeting with the police department.
The lawsuit alleges the supervisors violated the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which requires the board of county supervisors to notify the public when three or more supervisors are meeting and discussing policy.
“While no votes were cast during the meeting, the Democrat members posed questions and provided directives to the police leadership to curtail the use of crowd control measures in future disturbances,” according to the release from Judicial Watch. “As set forth in the lawsuit, this constituted a discussion of public business in violation of Virginia Code section 2.2.-3707(A).”
Robl told the court in June she was prepared to defend the board.
"At no time were there three or more supervisors sitting or talking together or discussing board business or taking votes," Robl told InsideNoVa after the June hearing. "It does not meet the board's definition of a meeting."
During an emergency board meeting later in the afternoon May 31, attended by all members, Prince William police Lt. Col. Jarad Phelps apologized to board members who were not invited.
Gloss, Fox and Spinks started a GoFundMe page to raise $15,000, to hold the supervisors accountable for the meeting May 31, according to the page. Through Friday, 126 people have donated a total of $11,897 to the fund.
If the court finds that the supervisors willfully violated Virginia's open-meetings laws, it could assess civil penalties of between $500 and $2,000, which are paid into the state's Literary Fund.
Sherrie Johnson, spokeswoman for the county, said in an email Friday the five board members have been sued in their individual and official capacity. While the county attorney represents the board as a whole, the county attorney cannot represent the individual board members in this lawsuit, because there is a conflict among the board members in this matter, Johnson said. That means each supervisor will have to hire his or her own lawyer.
“As the matter is currently in litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit,” Johnson said in an email.