Letter: High school pep rally or town council meeting?

The council meetings of the Town of Washington are turning into the equivalent of a high school pep rally.

Article 3.7 of the town’s charter states that, “. . . the council shall follow Robert’s Rules of Order, latest edition, for rules of procedure necessary for the orderly conduct of business . . .,” but the mayor picks and chooses when these rules are applied. The charter also states that the meetings shall be open to the public, yet the mayor’s disdain towards and disparate treatment of non-town residents is increasingly apparent as well.

In fact, the reaction of the entire council has been downright rude towards members of the concerned public who question the legality of issues before the council or who introduce differing views, or who simply state their disagreement with issues before the council. The county seat is, after all, in the town of Washington and there are many county residents with Washington addresses, like me, who don’t live within the town’s boundary, but who live literally just down the road. To think that the views of non-town residents are irrelevant is absurd and offensive, and contrary to the charter which opens these meetings to the public. To assume that council decisions have no effect on the neighboring community or the county at large is shortsighted.

By taking an oath of office under the Code of Virginia, Section 49-1, the town council members swear to uphold the laws of the commonwealth and the Constitution. Yet at the last meeting, despite the zoning administrator actually reading the town ordinance out loud, Section 4-1-5, which mirrors the Virginia statute and states that proof of hardship is required to grant a variance, the council ignored the ordinance, shot down the public who asked for proof of hardship, and voted to approve the lot subdivision. The problem is that when the statute says this is the way to do a thing, it excludes all other possibilities, like a town council’s own interpretation. That subdivision was simply not approvable, yet this town council voted to approve it.

Once approved, members of the audience clapped loudly, as they have resorted to doing when they agree with council votes or statements and commentary made during the public forum portion of these meetings. This behavior is highly inappropriate, yet the mayor has allowed it to continue. Perhaps those of us who disagree with council votes or public opinions made during the meetings should start shouting, “Boo,” which, in my opinion, would be no less inappropriate.

Members of the public who state their support for anything the council has done are permitted to ramble on ad nauseam with emotional and sometimes even unrelated diatribes, but those who pose the difficult questions, who challenge the council’s application of local or state ordinances, who point out where laws are being broken, are cut short, ordered to get to the point or to sit down. And, after the public comment portion of the meetings has ended, the mayor routinely allows additional public comment. How does this behavior comply with Robert’s Rules of Order on decorum in debate, Rule 43, “. . . in debate a member must confine himself to the question before the assembly, and avoid personalities.”?

If the behavior of the council cannot rise to at least a high school student council meeting level, perhaps the charter revocation discussion should resume.

Marian Bragg

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