Salem council recesses regular meeting, resumes meeting at W.Va. resort

Roanoke Times, Sunday, October 20, 2007

Salem council meets in W.Va.
The council members attended a three-day retreat to address long-term concerns.
By Marquita Brown


Salem residents might be surprised to learn that their city council recently recessed a meeting, only to resume it four days later at a golf, spa and ski resort in West Virginia.

For three days, at the request of City Manager Forest Jones, council members joined a retreat for high-ranking city staff at the Resort at Glade Springs in Daniels, W.Va. Some of them brought their spouses to the resort, which is about a two-hour drive from Salem.

During the retreat, council members spent a few hours a day discussing issues including the city's long-term goals, capital improvement plans and other concerns. Jones and some council members noted that no actions were taken during the meetings.

Because all of the council members attended the retreat and discussed city business, it was subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, a state law designed to encourage open government.

Among other things, the law requires that all meetings of public bodies be open and that public notice of those meetings be made in several ways, including online.

The act of recessing a previously scheduled public meeting in Salem and continuing it four days later in West Virginia allowed the council to legally forgo specific public notice of the retreat, one FOIA expert said.

"I can see where local newspaper reporters and citizens may go, 'You did that?' " said Maria Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

But, Everett said of the council, "They didn't do anything wrong."

Salem planning director and spokeswoman Melinda Payne said: "We don't intend to hide anything, and that's not what we tried to do."

The notice council gave of the retreat came late in its meeting the night of Sept. 24 in Salem City Hall.

Councilman Chris Clemens made a motion to recess and continue the meeting on Sept. 28 in Daniels. Clemens' motion followed a public hearing on the construction and operation of a concrete batch plant off Kesler Mill Road -- after many people in council chambers had left the room. But Payne said some residents were still present.

"We don't have any control over how many people are in the room," Mayor Howard Packett said.

Planning for the retreat, held annually for the city's department leaders and constitutional officers, began in February. Jones said he doesn't remember when he asked individual council members to attend, but it was much later and an afterthought.

"I don't get a chance to talk to them a lot as a group," Jones said of the council members. The retreat provided an opportunity for an informal meeting without everyday distractions, he said.

The intent, Jones said, was also to ensure that the city officials and council members, three of whom are relatively new, received the same information on issues concerning the city. The goal was more urgent because the retreat is the last Jones will attend before retiring in 2008.

At this point, it's unclear how much the retreat will cost city taxpayers. Finance Director Frank Turk said he doesn't yet have a bill from the resort.

In February, before Jones had invited the council members, a representative from the Resort at Glade Springs estimated reservations for a 40-person retreat would cost $9,160. The estimate was the lowest of six the city received from other hotels and resorts.

The estimated costs included hotel rooms, breakfast and lunch each day and meeting space.

The estimate did not include the costs for five council members, or for nightly group dinners, or a pre-dinner reception on Sept. 28. Those charges will be billed to the city.

Nor did it include resort fees, use of the golf courses or other available activities. Those attending the retreat paid for entertainment on their own or gathered in the common areas of their lodges, Payne said.

Jones said his wife and the wives of Packett and Vice Mayor John Givens also attended the retreat. The women incurred small expenses for lunch and dinner, Payne said. After The Roanoke Times raised questions about the retreat, Jones said he paid for his wife's expenses and later said Packett and Givens would do the same.

During the Sept. 28-30 leg of the retreat in which the council participated, council members spent three to four hours each day discussing city business, according to minutes of the meetings. Council members used that time to address concerns they have fielded from their constituents, such as recycling in Salem, Payne said.

On Sept. 30, the council went into closed session to discuss a personnel matter, according to the minutes.

Payne, Jones, Packett and Councilman Randy Foley all said the meetings were informal and informational, with no votes or actions taken.

Givens declined to comment on the matter, referring questions to Jones. Council members Clemens and Jane Johnson did not return calls seeking comment.

Salem officials acknowledge that in the past the city government has been characterized as inaccessible. Jones said he has been working to change that perception since becoming city manager in 2000.

Among efforts to keep residents informed are the publication of a magazine that is distributed quarterly, Payne said. Each month Jones meets with Salem business owners to discuss upcoming city projects and other matters.

Salem has also formed task forces of residents, city officials and, in some cases, students and leaders from Roanoke College to address concerns, Payne said.

And, Everett said, the way the council announced its retreat may be unusual, but it's not unprecedented.

Everett said she has heard of one Virginia county council that legally continued a meeting in Boston.

"To me, the better idea is trying to appear open as well as doing what the letter of the law requires," Everett said. "They're under no legal obligation to do so."