Staunton civil suit highlights friction between City Council members

Staunton civil suit highlights friction between City Council members

STAUNTON, Va. (WVIR) - In Staunton, a city council member is taking two others to court. The case is still pending after an initial hearing was continued, but it’s providing insight into potential friction between council members.

Staunton Councilwoman Brenda Mead accuses the mayor and vice mayor of breaking the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It all started when she says she didn’t have a document voted on during a September 10 meeting, and later requested it from them.

“I got no response. The clerk of council got no response,” stated Mead. “And so ultimately I was forced to make a FOIA inquiry.”

Mead says Mayor Andrea Oakes and Vice Mayor Mark Robertson failed to meet the time requirement to provide that document related to a 12-year-old civil suit with Debra Chilton-Belloni over zoning and building code violations. It was unexpectedly added to the agenda at that September meeting.

Staunton Mayor Andrea Oakes and Vice Mayor Mark Robertson
Staunton Mayor Andrea Oakes and Vice Mayor Mark Robertson (Source: WVIR)

Newly elected Councilwoman Amy Darby took issue with some of the wording on the original resolution and Vice Mayor Robertson presented an amended resolution.

“Over a hundred lines of that resolution were deleted,” said Mead.

At the time, Mead says she never got a copy of the changes. Councilmember Terry Holmes says he didn’t either.

Staunton Councilmembers Brenda Mead and Terry Holmes
Staunton Councilmembers Brenda Mead and Terry Holmes (Source: WVIR)

“Without having that information in front of us. It’s really hard to follow what they’re changing. And that was the big thing. And they sprung it on us with no chance to prepare,” stated Holmes.

A bigger issue from that meeting may be the Council’s ability to work together. This was highlighted during a call for the vote by Mayor Oakes.

“Alright, we have a call for the question,” stated Oakes.

“Mayor Oakes, I have a comment or two. This is Brenda Mead.”

“Simmons, call the roll. We have a call for the question. Miss Simmons call the roll,” Oakes said.

Councilwomen Mead and Dull said during the meeting, it was illegal moving on to a vote. Mead cited a specific city code, but now says she meant to refer to Roberts Rules of Order, which council agreed to and she felt were not being followed. Mead says she was wrong about the reconsideration of vote, and it was not illegal.

At least three of the seven councilors did not have a copy of the document during the meeting. Mead later filed a Writ of Mandamus with the General District Court to force the mayor and vice mayor to provide it.

General District Court in downtown Staunton
General District Court in downtown Staunton (Source: WVIR)

“It is not simply that they provide a document in a time frame that’s convenient for them,” said Mead. “Under the act, they have five days to respond and they did not.”

Mead eventually got a document, but Holmes says his fellow council members need to be less secretive.

“Now I just wanna get it behind us, because it just stirs up animosity among all of us, you know,” stated Holmes. “And I mean that’s the worst problem we have right now is we’re not a very cohesive council and I can’t blame it on... it’s on everybody’s shoulders to be honest with ya.”

NBC29 reached out to both Mayor Oakes and Vice Mayor Robertson for comment. Oakes' attorney says Mead filed prematurely and did not count correctly, including the day she filed the FOIA request and the weekend. Mead says FOIA applies to her initial request through the city manager. She hopes to recoup her court expenses.

The case is scheduled to be taken back up on November 13.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with new information about the vote on the amended resolution at the September 10 work session. Councilor Mead cited an incorrect procedural code and has now clarified what she meant and that she no longer feels the council took an illegal step.

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