City attorney discussion dissolves into shouting match; councilor calls mayor ‘dictator’
HOPEWELL — A hot August night turned even hotter Thursday inside the Municipal Building, as City Council ended a special called meeting over the city attorney position with what can best be described as an angry adjournment.
The closed session was called to discuss candidates to succeed Stefan M. Calos as Hopewell’s top legal adviser. However, that business never got underway, and the session quickly turned into shouting matches over allegations of personal attacks among several council members. At one point, things got so heated that Vice Mayor Jasmine E. Gore walked out, saying she was fed up with all the arguing.
Later, Councilors Brenda S. Pelham and Anthony J. Zevgolis criticized Mayor Jackie M. Shornak for letting the matter get out of hand. Pelham claimed Shornak’s “lack of leadership” added fuel to the fire because she was allowing the personal attacks to take place.
“She wants to be a dictator instead of a facilitator,” Pelham said of Shornak. “That’s not going to work when you have people that have the same voice … one voice, one vote.”
“We were supposed to come down here and specifically talk about … city attorney prospects,” Zevgolis added. “And it got into a personality fight among the councilors.”
Shornak said she was not surprised by the way things devolved.
“Tonight was just a fiasco,” she said. “It’s nothing but pointing the fingers and personal attacks, and we got nothing accomplished.”
There also appeared to be some heat over Calos attending the meeting, since he was not asked by council to be present. However, City Clerk Ronnieye L. Arrington told some of the councilors that the city administration requested Calos be there. He left the meeting on a couple of occasions, only to be asked to return.
Timing on the selection appears to be one of the major points of contention in the hiring process.
Calos, who along with his law firm Sands Anderson is contracted by the city as its attorney, tendered his resignation last July but agreed to stay on while a successor is sought. Since he offered his letter, 30 candidates have been reviewed and winnowed down to five finalists. Zevgolis said council has talked to all of them, and he feels the time has come to make the decision.
Council has several appointments on the agenda for its regularly scheduled meeting next Tuesday, and Zevgolis said he plans to push for a vote on the matter then. “I don’t care if we have to stay here until 1:00 in the morning,” he said.
Pelham also said she would like to see the matter reconciled. “It’s been 13 months, and that’s just too long,” she noted.
However, Shornak pointed to the council elections in November and noted that the new council should be seated before the decision in made. Four of the seven seats are on the ballot, three of which — Shornak, Zevgolis and Christina J. Luman-Bailey, who did not attend Thursday night — are contested.
“In my opinion, I think the city attorney should be [selected] by the new City Council,” Shornak said. “We have not come to an agreement on a city attorney, and I feel it is just in the best interest of the citizens for the new council to do so since we cannot agree on anyone.”
As for voting on the matter at next Tuesday’s meeting, Shronak said she will not be a part of it.
In adherence with state Freedom of Information Act laws, council convened in an open meeting and properly voted to enter closed session to discuss the position. However, the door was barely closed before the shouting began, and the heated exchanges could be heard through most of the hallway. Eventually, council reconvened into open session and adjourned.
Under FOIA law, council had to reconvene into open session and certify that the closed session dealt only with the topic previously announced. Since that did not happen, council came out and acknowledged that the closed session did not comply with FOIA.
At one point, Gore stormed out of the meeting and paced the hallway while the arguments continued. When asked if she thought council would ever come up with a choice, she replied, “I don’t know. I certainly hope so.”
Calos and his firm have served Hopewell as city attorney since 2015. State law allows municipalities to contract with specific law firms to act as their top legal advisers. Sands Anderson, for example, serves 10 Virginia localities in a municipal-attorney capacity.
Zevgolis has made no secret of his disdain for contracting with law firms as city attorneys. He said he feels the position should be filled by a full-time employee rather than a contractor. However, city administration views Calos as a full-timer.
Michelle Gowdy, executive director of the Virginia Municipal League, said in an email Thursday afternoon that her organization has never taken a position for or against contracting law firms for city legal services.
“I have seen it done in many ways and it works differently for each locality,” Gowdy stated.
Bill Atkinson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804-722-5617.