By Carol Vaughn — No action was taken on the issue at a special meeting the Onley Town Council called to discuss Mayor Matt Hart’s behavior.
Several council members called for the meeting, held Monday, June 27.
On the agenda, in addition to other items, was “discussion of recent behavior of an elected official.”
Hart has been a member of the Onley Town Council since 2014. He was elected mayor in 2018 and was elected again in 2020.
The meeting was attended by Onley residents but did not include a public comment period.
Council members were given three minutes each to comment, with Hart responding to some criticisms.
Town Attorney Carl Bundick also was in attendance.
“If council has something they want to air out to the public, I have no problem with that.
I’ve always believed in full transparency,” Hart said.
Interim Town Manager Jamye Salazar said the first three council members who emailed calling for the meeting were Brian Corbin, Woody Zember, and Rose Pierson.
Councilwoman Billye D. Custis spoke first, saying members were told they could not call the town attorney without the mayor’s approval.
She also said some emails go only to certain council members and said town employees “won’t talk to us.”
Additionally, Custis spoke against hiring and firing of town employees “without council having a clue what’s going on.”
She said the mayor’s role “is to concentrate on the meeting process over issue content,” citing a handbook for Virginia mayors and council members.
Hart responded to Custis’ comments, saying officials agreed years ago to follow the procedure about contacting the attorney, noting the town pays for his work.
“It’s never been that somebody came to me and I said no. I’ve always said go right ahead, no problem. It’s just a checks and balances,” he said, adding the mayor should be brought in on any legal issues.
Hart said not sending all emails to all council members is “not intentional” on his part, but could be an occasional oversight.
He said hiring and firing is done according to the town charter, asking Bundick to confirm that.
“It is our practice,” Bundick said.
Hart said he doesn’t release names of some new hires because they have not yet given notice at their old job, noting he always includes in emails to contact him if a councilperson wants more information.
Other council members commented about some of the same issues.
Zember said he “would like to see emails going to everybody” and more structured meetings.
Councilman Bill Ferguson said he thinks “we need to throttle back on Facebook.”
Councilwoman Claudia Harmon said if she has “an issue with the mayor” and wants to talk with the town attorney about it, it puts her in an awkward position to have to first clear it with the mayor.
Harmon and Pierson also said they would like to to know more about new hires.
Corbin commented on a statement Hart made on social media, alleging Hart “said some disparaging things about residents of the town.”
Corbin cited a comment Hart made about a former vice mayor, who is seeking election as mayor, having voted to spend $117,000 on a set of plans for a town office “that can not be used.”
Hart in the meeting said, as a council member at the time, he himself did not vote to spend the money.
This is not the first time Onley’s mayor and council have been at odds.
The council in 2020 voted 4-2 to censure Hart, with the resolution saying he created a hostile work environment for employees and contractors, used abusive language, and failed to follow parliamentary procedure, among other allegations.
Hart then filed an injunction in Accomack County General District Court, alleging council members did not follow proper procedure under the Freedom of Information Act when they called a special executive session where the censure apparently was discussed and asking that the censure be set aside.
Judge Sam D. Eggleston III ruled against Hart.
Hart on June 20 on his mayoral Facebook page said he does not plan to seek another term.
Still, two days later, he said he had been asked by many people to reconsider.
“I will put it like this. If you all want to write me in, and enough people do it to re-elect me, I will serve two more years. I am not campaigning, I did this job for free and I will continue to do it for free.”
Hart in another post said the special meeting likely was called “to attack me on the issue” of parking at the Onley Post Office, but said the council “made up a bunch of bologna instead because the media was present.”
According to Hart, a safety hazard has been created as result of a parking area next to the post office, which traditionally has been used by post office customers, being blocked off by tenants of Onley Baptist Church, which owns the property.
“This is to me a safety issue, the town attorney agrees with me on this issue as a safety issue,” Hart wrote in a June 25 Facebook post.
The council voted at a previous meeting to take no action about the matter, he said.
The council did take action Monday on other agenda items, including voting to donate $4,500 to Lighthouse Ministries and appointing Salazar, who previously served as town manager, as interim town manager, at an annual salary of $60,000.
The council also voted to set the town office hours as Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.