Town Council Resorts to Secretive Meetings to Avoid Scrutiny
Mayor Steve Angle has participated in more than 180 secret meetings since January 2007.
Angle was elected to Town Council in 1990 and served in that capacity until his election as Mayor in 2006. Online records begin in 2006 and show only three meetings prior to January 2007, and as of this writing, are current through March of 2021.
The only public record of these meetings is a notice that one has taken place. That notice cites “VA § 2.2-3711 Closed meetings authorized for certain limited purposes.”
The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.
VA § 2.2-3711 lists the limited purposes for which a closed-door meeting may be held, including discussion, consideration or interviews of prospective candidates for employment, assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining or resignation of specific public officers, appointees or employees of any public body.
VA § 2.2-3712 requires a certification of the closed-door meeting, stating “only public business matters lawfully exempted from open meeting requirements under this chapter and (ii) only such public business matters as were identified in the motion by which the closed meeting was convened were heard, discussed or considered in the meeting by the public body. Any member of the public body who believes that there was a departure from the requirements of clauses (i) and (ii), shall so state prior to the vote, indicating the substance of the departure that, in his judgment, has taken place.”
At least 181 of Angle’s private meetings have adhered to the Code of Virginia. There does however seem to be one departure, and it is deeply troubling. Deeply troubling.
In late March of 2020, the Town of Rocky Mount was adjusting to pandemic protocols and doing a good job of it. There were also rumblings of trouble at the Rocky Mount Police Department. Allegedly, Community Resource Officer Tim Taylor was quite discontent. Taylor would refer to himself as “Criner’s Coffee Bitch.” Taylor had a prior friendship with long-time Rocky Mount Councilman Bobby Moyer. Moyer is not just a Town Council member but a retired Rocky Mount Police Officer. Moyer shared the stories he was hearing with fellow council-member Jon Snead. Both men were alarmed.
The unwritten policy is that Rocky Mount Town employees do not take their concerns to members of the Town Council, but if a Council Member asks, the Town employee is allowed to answer the question forthrightly.
Mr. Moyer arranged for a few individual meetings with members of the Rocky Mount Police Department in the privacy of his home. Councilman Jon Snead held separate meetings at his office at Franklin Finance in Rocky Mount. It is alleged that Councilman Stockton also knew the meetings were happening. The Rocky Mount Police Department employees were assured they would be protected, and the Chief would not know they ever met with members of Council. Ten to fifteen RMPD employees met with the Councilmen and reported both the inappropriate behavior and the toxic, hostile work environment of the Police Department under Chief Ken Criner. Including the Chief’s statement in regard to an employee who was diagnosed with breast cancer, “The bitch got a bump on her titty and now she wants to milk it for five weeks off.”
The two Council members were alarmed enough to allegedly organize a closed-door meeting of the Town Council for Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the meeting was held via the internet. The meeting, because it was “closed-door,” should have been attended exclusively by members of Council, the Town Attorney John Boitnott, Town Manager James Ervin, and Assistant Town Manager Matt Hankins.
An open discussion ensued wherein the Chief’s behavior and the low morale of the Rocky Mount Police Department were openly discussed. While some Council members wanted Criner to be dismissed immediately, the outcome of the meeting was that James Ervin would initiate an investigation.
What everyone attending the meeting, minus Assistant Town Manager Matt Hankins, did not realize, is that Chief Ken Criner had secretly attended the meeting by sitting off-camera in Hankins’ office.
Criner used his phone to take photos of Hankin’s notes. The next day, he made a point to confront RMPD employees and let them know that he was aware of what they said.
The promises made by Moyer and Snead were violated and the employees were now vulnerable to even worse treatment from the Chief.
Criner was placed on paid leave as an open investigation into his behavior was initiated. There was also a back channel investigation into how he had attended the meeting, and Hankins’ role was uncovered. Someone had to go.
Town Manager James Ervin’s standard operating procedure was not to terminate employees, but to seek resignations and to reward silence with attractive payouts.
It is alleged that Criner knew enough about Town Manager Ervin’s multiple divorces, accusations of domestic abuse, and orders of protection, that his position was safe. That left Hankins, and of course, he knew where the proverbial bodies were buried. So Hankins resigned, explaining that he wished for a greater life/work balance. He was given a six-month severance package well in excess of $50,000. Hankins’ also double-dipped in his role at The Harvester Performance Center by taking a $5,000 finder’s fee for a donation he did not secure.
But how do they explain the secret meeting, much less the closed meeting violation, and Hankins’ golden parachute?
Freedom of Information requests were stonewalled in this matter. James Ervin responded to one FOIA request, “Town Council did not meet on April 1, 2020, in either open or closed session. There was a briefing provided to Members of Council and staff on April 1, 2020, electronically via remote access or dial-in.” Ervin then attached a GoToMeeting invite that was distributed to Council Members, but not staff.
Mr. Ervin then attached the email invite. The invite begins, “All: Here are the details for today’s meeting.“
That is correct, Ervin attached a memo where he referred to the meeting to a letter where he said there never was a meeting.
In a subsequent letter, it was provided that the meeting was to inform Council of recent mandates made by Governor Northam. Fair enough, except Governor Northam issued Executive Order 55 on March 30, 2020, at 11:00 AM. This means Town officials, in the middle of a global pandemic, waited 53 hours to discuss the Governor’s most recent orders.
If that is true, it makes them unbelievably incompetent, in addition to being in violation of Virginia § 2.2-3711. The Governor’s public mandate does not meet the criteria for a closed-door meeting. Even then, where is the paperwork and certifications that accompany a closed-door meeting?
We believe the Rocky Mount Town Council was too clever by half. They hoped to hold this meeting off the books. This would allow all members of the Council plausible deniability to claim ignorance if things at the Rocky Mount Police Department worsened. Council did not count on Hankin’s violating their trust and allowing Criner to sit in. They certainly didn’t count on Criner to then seek retribution against those who reported his behavior.
When Council expressed a desire to terminate Criner, Town Manager James Ervin allegedly threatened to quit. If Criner goes, so does Ervin. Council found themselves in a Mexican standoff.
It was agreed to allow Ervin to deal with Criner (two weeks unpaid leave and a yet-unfulfilled anger-management requirement). When the Chief returned to the Department, a letter was organized by Sgt. T.J. Robertson stating the Chief had their support. The letter was signed by 15 people. The hostile, toxic work conditions at the Rocky Mount Police Department would continue. Community Resource Officer Tim Taylor chose to cover his backside and betray his most vulnerable coworkers. He is now an ardent supporter of Chief Criner and is the only part-time officer allowed to take a vehicle home with him..
It is important to note that the Rocky Mount Police Department has subsequently lost 54% of their sworn officers, including Sgt. T. J. Robertson who was fired by Criner.
Council would deny the meeting was for anything but a briefing on the Governor’s mandate, and they would forgo the required certification as that would cause them to lie under oath. They would rather their legacy be sloppiness than fecklessness.