Three members of Prince William County's Racial and Social Justice Commission appear to have violated the panel’s bylaws and the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
Commissioners Charles Haddow (Coles District), London Steverson (Brentsville) and Erica Tredinnick (Gainesville) held a town hall meeting Tuesday at Patriot High School about critical race theory and culturally-responsive teaching -- but it was not sanctioned by the full panel.
InsideNoVa did not attend the town hall. A Prince William Times reporter posted updates from the town hall on Twitter, showing the commissioners gave a presentation during the meeting.
I’m currently at Patriot High School in Nokesville where three Republican appointees to the county’s Racial and Social Justice Commission are holding a town hall on critical race theory at 7 p.m. This appears to be the first slide of their presentation pic.twitter.com/OVb0Nf97AQ— Daniel Berti (@DanielBerti12) October 5, 2021
According to pictures of part of Haddow’s presentation that were posted by the Prince William Times reporter on Twitter, the first slide read “PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY SCHOOLS DO NOT TEACH CRITICAL RACE THEORY IS THAT TRUE?” The next slide features a quote about the government lying to Utah residents about the effects of nuclear fallout from testing during the Cold War.
The Prince William Times reporter posted that Haddow said he felt culturally-responsive teaching was being used as a Trojan horse to bring critical race theory into classrooms.
Critical race theory is an overarching term applying to graduate-level law studies focusing on how issues of race are interwoven into U.S. history through government and private policies. One example is redlining, in which banks refused to give mortgages to Black people or imposed harsh terms.
The theory has become a battle cry among conservative groups, who say it is being taught in all levels of schooling and assigns the blame of past racist actions to current children.
Local and state school officials in Virginia have said the theory is not being taught and that people are conflating equity initiatives and culturally-responsive teaching with critical race theory.
At the commission’s Sept. 23 meeting, School Board member Loree Williams again said critical race theory is not being taught in schools.
“We keep having this discussion on critical race theory which is a false narrative,” Williams said. “Culturally-responsive teaching is not simply about race. It deals with disability. It deals with ethnicity. It deals with a multitude of issues.”
Haddow responded at the meeting with: “The last person I’m going to go ask if you’re teaching critical race theory is a School Board member.”
The Prince William Times reporter indicated at least three additional commissioners attended the meeting and sat in the audience, meaning all but two commissioners were present.
Anytime more than three members of a public body are present and discussing public business, the meeting must be advertised in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act. Although the meeting was promoted on Facebook and by individual members and county supervisors, neither the meeting, nor the presentation, was posted on the county’s website prior to it occurring.
Late Tuesday night, county staff added a page under events saying that the meeting was happening, but a recording of it was not available.
In a response to InsideNoVa over Twitter, Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said when three or more members of a public body “get together to talk about public [business], they’re supposed to follow FOIA’s procedure for meetings.”
If three members of the Racial and Social Justice Commission are giving a presentation and thus discussing public business in a meeting that was not advertised as a public meeting of the commission, is that a FOIA violation? I’m not there so don’t know the situation. @opengovva https://t.co/KC1lxcf2E5— Nolan Stout (@TheNolanStout) October 5, 2021
“There are allowances for public fora, but that’s usually in the context of members at a forum held by someone else, not one held … themselves,” she wrote.
Violations of FOIA are only enforced through the courts by actions of commonwealth's attorneys or through lawsuits filed by residents. A county resident filed a lawsuit against the five Democrats on the Board of Supervisors last year alleging they violated the law by attending a community meeting. The lawsuit was dismissed.
In a Wednesday email to Chair Shantell Rock, Haddow said he notified staff and the commission of his intent to hold a listening session in April. He said that his announcement of the meeting during commissioners’ time at the panel’s Sept. 23 meeting adequately served as public notice under FOIA.
“The attendance at the meeting -- when I did a head count midway through the meeting -- was approximately 80 attendees, which is a larger audience than any RSJC meeting that I am aware of and shows the public was obviously very aware of the meeting,” he wrote.
Haddow said if any public notice requirements were not met, it was county staff’s responsibility to post notice of the meetings. He said the meeting was recorded and submitted to the county to be posted on the website.
During the commission’s Sept. 23 meeting, Haddow did not say the town hall would focus on critical race theory nor did he indicate it would include a presentation of his views.
“We invite the community to come - any voiceless person who feels like they haven’t been heard yet - we invite them to participate. It will be a sincere listening session to talk and have a clear opportunity - I’m not really too interested in hearing some of the narrative I heard at the last meeting,” he said. “I think this will hopefully be a reasonable discussion about areas in our community that we can improve on the quality of life here.”
Based on social media reports and comments to InsideNoVa by Rock, the meeting appears to have been led by Haddow who provided a presentation of his opinions before taking public comment. Rock said she was told commissioners answered questions on behalf of the commission, violating the bylaws.
“This was the Mac Haddow show. This was not a listening session,” Rock said. “I feel like they’re trying to make a mockery of our commission and they’re not going to do that.”
The bylaws say “The Chair shall be the primary spokesperson for the Commission and may, from time to time, designate other officers or members to speak for the Commission on specific matters.” As of Tuesday night, Rock had not designated others to speak on behalf of the commission.
“I’m the only person allowed to speak on behalf of the commission,” Rock said.
Haddow, one of the most outspoken commissioners, has become a lightning rod on the panel as its full meetings have been marked with his objections, hangups and prolonged debates on numerous procedural matters. He has sparred with other members who say he cuts them off or speaks over them, and he engages in frequent heated debates on procedure with Raul Torres, executive director of the Office of Human Rights, including once slamming down a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order on the dais.
Haddow has said at multiple meetings that he believes it’s important to follow proper procedure in conducting public business. He has said the three panelists appointed by Republican members of the Board of Supervisors are treated differently than other commissioners.
Rock said no other commissioners have held joint listening sessions. She said the commissioners did not coordinate with staff to facilitate the town hall or ensure it followed the panel’s bylaws and state law. Rock provided emails Tuesday night showing county staff advised that a gathering of three commissioners would be considered a meeting under FOIA.
Rock admonished Haddow for frequently focusing on procedural matters and then violating the bylaws.
“All this is just crazy,” she said. “You mean to tell me you couldn’t send an email to staff to make sure it was on the landing page?”
Prior to Tuesday’s town hall, Rock issued a press release saying “The Commission is not responsible for promoting, reviewing, or discussing Critical Race Theory.”
“This conversation is separate from the mission of the Racial and Social Justice Commission, and therefore, this is not a conversation sanctioned by the Commission,” the release says. “However, the Commission encourages all Commissioners to conduct town hall meetings to discuss with constituents their experience in education as it relates to the school system’s policies impacting children of color.”
In the news release, Rock said county school officials have said critical race theory is not being taught locally and that “the Racial and Social Justice Commission respectfully accept[s] their position.”
“I was well within my rights, according to the bylaws, that I can release a press release on behalf of the commission,” Rock said.
The bylaws do not provide any specific remedy to sanction members who are in violation. Rock said she will speak with county staff on Wednesday to explore potential responses.
Haddow said that the commission has not taken formal action to determine if critical race theory is in its purview.
“I do not think your opinions or personal beliefs on specific issues is determinative on what the scope of issues to be considered by the Commission, and your attempts to do so is a clear abuse of your role as Chairman of the Commission,” Haddow wrote to Rock. “I believe you should correct your prior public statements.”