- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

HOPEWELL, Va. (AP) - A Circuit Court judge has ruled that the Hopewell City Council acted improperly by holding a closed session before selecting a mayor and vice mayor earlier this year.

Judge W. Allan Sharrett sided last week with Hopewell resident Janice Denton, whose initial complaint that the Jan. 6 meeting violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act was dismissed by a lower court in February, media outlets reported.

At the heart of the lawsuit was the method the City Council used to select the city’s mayor and vice mayor.

Sharrett ruled that the City Council had elected the officials, rather than appointed them. A state exemption that allows for closed sessions applies only to appointments - not elections, Sharrett said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director for the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/1mQImOV) that the decision wouldn’t set a legal precedent but it would provide guidance for other courts facing a similar test of open-meeting law.



Denton called the decision “incredible.”

“I just felt strongly that a judge somewhere needed to determine that this was not the right way to elect a mayor,” Denton told the newspaper. “This was all planned out in a back room without input from the citizens who voted to put them there.”

Hopewell Mayor Brenda Pelham told The Progress-Index of Petersburg (https://bit.ly/1VpqZjV) that she believes Judge Sharrett’s ruling goes against the General Assembly’s guidance statue.

“Our charter interchanges the word ‘election’ and ‘appointment”’, Pelham said. “He chose to concentrate on the word ‘election.’ The mayorship is not an elected official.”

It was not immediately clear whether the city planned to appeal the ruling. The City Council has 30 days after the entry of a final order in the case to decide whether to appeal.

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This story has been corrected to show that the ruling was made last week, not Tuesday.

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