The Prince William Board of County Supervisors has found itself in a partisan fight over meetings, both public and behind closed doors.
The disagreement appears to have started with individual supervisors trying to respond to protests held in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. It became more complicated with a closed-door session to review Freedom of Information Act laws with the county attorney — a meeting opposed by the board’s three Republicans, who refused to participate.
Five members of the Prince William board attended a community meeting May 31 on use of police force during a Manassas-area protest the previous evening. The three supervisors who weren’t invited, all Republicans, are upset that the Democrats attended the event.
“I don't think we should dance around the fact that five members were at a public meeting and three members didn't know about it,” Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson said at the board’s meeting June 2. She wasn’t invited, along with Pete Candland of the Gainesville District and Yesli Vega of the Coles District.
The meeting was organized by the county’s police department. 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.
The state’s law on public meetings requires public notice when three or more members of the board are meeting and discussing policy. Chair Ann Wheeler told InsideNoVa on Tuesday that the five supervisors didn’t violate the state’s law on meetings.
“This idea that the board held secret meetings behind closed doors is just not true,” Wheeler said, noting that about 60 people were in the room.
She said she wasn’t aware other supervisors were going to attend the meeting. Wheeler was monitoring the protests on May 30 and requested a meeting with Phelps.
In response to a text message from Wheeler, County Executive Christopher Martino said she could meet with Phelps at 12:30 p.m. and noted another meeting hosted by Police Chief Barry Barnard.
“Chief Barnard has also scheduled a 1:00 meeting with a few community leaders which I believe you should be at,” Martino said in the text conversation provided to InsideNoVa by Wheeler.
Wheeler said during the meeting June 2 supervisors attended the meeting to listen to the public in a time of crisis. “I was glad I heard from the community in that time,” Wheeler said.
At the end of the meeting June 2, the board considered a motion to go into closed session to hear from the county’s attorney on the rules around public meetings.
County Attorney Michelle Robl told the board she wanted to talk to the board and give legal advice in closed session, and she also wanted to provide advice about the board sending emails to the entire board and having a discussion over email.
State law allows for a closed session “regarding specific legal matters requiring the provision of legal advice.”
In a 5-3 vote, the board approved a resolution to enter into closed session for “consultation with legal counsel and briefings by staff members pertaining to legal advice regarding public body meetings and the Freedom of Information Act, where consultation, briefing, or discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the litigating posture of the Board, or the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body.”
Wheeler and supervisors Victor Angry, D-Neabsco; Andrea Bailey, D-Potomac; Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan; and Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge, voted to enter closed session.
Lawson, Candland and Vega voted against the resolution, arguing the discussion should be held in public. In a rare move for the board, the three Republicans didn’t join the rest of the board in closed session.
Wheeler told InsideNoVa she expects Robl to make a presentation to the board on FOIA during an upcoming public meeting.