ACLU urges Petersburg City Council to correct meeting practices

Published: Nov. 28, 2016 at 9:16 PM EST|Updated: Apr. 13, 2017 at 8:20 PM EDT
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PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) - The ACLU of Virginia is asking Peterburg's City Council to correct how it announces and schedules meetings.

The group says there have been more than a dozen instances so far in 2016 in which "meetings were scheduled at times, places or in a manner that was inconvenient to the public or discouraged its participation."

In a letter to Mayor Howard Myers and City Council on Nov. 21, the ACLU says 13 meetings between March and October were called to address "critical issues" and that the meetings were held at times when most residents could not attend.

The ACLU also says at least four other meetings between June and August were held in small rooms that seated as few as six people.

"Holding meetings at inconvenient times and in small spaces that cannot accommodate the public violates the spirit of open government laws that serve to 'promote an increased awareness by all persons of government activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government," ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said in a letter to City Council.

Mayor Myers, however, denies any wrongdoing.

"We have not violated any laws and have made any and all accommodations available during our emergency meetings," he said.

The ACLU says some of the meetings were publicized ahead of time has having agenda items for discussion behind closed doors, but on at least one occasion the council's attorney said there was no reason to do so and the meeting was held as an open session.

"When a meeting is scheduled and announced as a closed meeting, it has the result of suppressing interest in attending and participating," Gastañaga's letter said. "Members of the media and the public may decide not to attend a meeting announced as including a closed session because there may be a significant portion of the meeting that they will be unable to attend or hear."

While no legal action has been taken, the ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit against the City Council in 2015 on behalf of a resident who said he was prohibited from speaking during a public comment period. That case was settled out of court.

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