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City Council members seek lawsuit dismissal
Attorneys for five Fredericksburg councilmen being sued for holding 'secret meetings' file motion asking judge to dismiss the case.

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Date published: 10/16/2002

Attorneys for five Fredericksburg city councilmen being sued for allegedly conducting illegal meetings by e-mail and in person filed motions yesterday claiming the plaintiffs' case is legally insufficient.

Howard Stahl, a Washington attorney representing Mayor Bill Beck, Vice Mayor Scott Howson and Councilmen Tom Fortune and Matt Kelly, filed a demurrer in Circuit Court yesterday. A demurrer asserts that even if the court assumes the claims in the lawsuit are true, those claims do not constitute a violation of the law.

Fredericksburg attorney William M. Sokol filed a demurrer and motion to dismiss on behalf of Councilman Billy Withers, the other defendant in the case.

The lawsuit alleges the five councilmen discussed city business in 16 "secret meetings" via e-mail and three "secret meetings" in person. The suit claims the councilmen deliberately excluded the public and Councilmen Joe Wilson and Hashmel Turner from these meetings.

In his motion to dismiss Withers as a defendant, Sokol points out that Withers sent only one of the e-mails included as evidence in the case. In that Aug. 6 e-mail to Howson, Withers wrote: "Can't do the Maury thing Friday. How about over the week-end or sometime next week?"

Plaintiffs in the suit are former Vice Mayor Gordon Shelton, former council candidate Anthony Jenkins and city resident Patrick Timpone. Shelton retired in June after 24 years on the council, and endorsed Jenkins as his successor. Jenkins lost to Fortune in the May election.

Stahl argues in his demurrer that the suit is politically motivated and that the defendants' e-mails do not constitute meetings under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act. He also notes that the majority of the e-mails between the councilmen were sent before Kelly, Withers and Fortune took office July 1.

He also notes that Shelton voted to close an Aug. 9, 2001, council meeting about the National Slavery Museum, while Beck and Howson voted to keep it open. A judge later ruled that the meeting was illegal.

"Thus, in the height of hypocrisy, Petitioner Shelton, who has a documented and litigated lack of regard for the virtues of open government, is now proclaiming himself as its greatest champion," Stahl wrote.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have until Oct. 28 to file opposing motions. Circuit Judge John W. Scott Jr. will rule Nov. 1 on the defense motions. A trial will be held Dec. 13 unless the case is dismissed.