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School Board appoints former mayor Johnson to Sleepy Hole Borough seat

Another candidate criticizes appointment process

The Suffolk School Board has appointed former mayor Linda Johnson to fill the Sleepy Hole Borough seat on an interim basis.

The vacancy had come after David Mitnick stepped down for health reasons at the board’s Jan. 14 meeting. The board made its choice during a Feb. 25 meeting, voting 4-1 in favor of Johnson. Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, Vice Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum, Karen Jenkins and Lorita Mayo voted in favor of Johnson, while Sherri Story voted against. Tyron Riddick was absent from the meeting.

Johnson has been keeping busy as a volunteer with COVID-19 vaccinations since Mike Duman defeated her and two other candidates in the Nov. 4 election. Her interim appointment is until Dec. 31. A special election will take place for the seat in November.

“It wasn’t necessarily planned, but it came in the picture,” Johnson said, citing Mitnick’s resignation, “and it’s just another way to be able to serve. I don’t think it’s any secret that I’ve been interested in the schools for a long, long time. I went to these schools, taught in these schools and I just think that they’re doing well, and I just wanted to see if I could help a little bit.”

While noting it would be a learning curve for her, Johnson said she would be focused on the facilities study, the upcoming budget and schools reopening in the hybrid format.

“I’ve been looking at the facilities study that came out, and I’ve seen bits and pieces of that,” Johnson said, “and I watched the meeting they had where they had a joint meeting on that. I think there’s some very interesting pieces to that, so I really want to get a chance to get in there and look at that. I know there’s some discussion … to increase the programs that we could do.

“I’d really like to get into some creative arts and some other opportunities for us to see if we can open some doors. I know that (Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III) is looking at all of that, and I think he’s leading in a great direction, and I just want to see if I can offer something, if I can help.”

She said it is too early to tell whether she will run in the special election for the remaining years of the term for the Sleepy Hole Borough seat.

Six people applied for the seat. Besides Johnson, Jason Fawcett, Christopher Old, Trisha James, Ebony Wright and Carly Bosco sought the appointment.

Fawcett, the son of Councilman Roger Fawcett, said he did not approve of the selection process and said he would seek legal counsel on the issue. He also vowed to run in the special election.

“The entire thing was amateurish and Mickey Mouse,” said Fawcett earlier Thursday prior to the board voting in favor of Johnson. “I deal in a lot of zeroes every year. I have 13,000 affiliates nationwide. What I can say is that the entire thing was amateurish and it goes right along par for the course.”

No one spoke during a public hearing on the interim appointment during the board’s Feb. 11 meeting before Brooks-Buck announced the names of the candidates and then moved forward with the meeting. City Council, conversely, did not name any of the 21 candidates to fill the Chuckatuck Borough seat after Duman unseated Johnson as mayor. The city, citing a Freedom of Information Act exemption, declined to name anyone who had applied. It said state code “exempts personnel records containing information concerning identifiable individuals.”

The school board held a pair of special meetings on Feb. 18 and Feb. 22 to interview candidates in closed session — three at each meeting.

While Fawcett and two other candidates interviewed in person in front of the board at the College and Career Academy at Pruden Feb. 18, the other three interviewed remotely Feb. 22.

Fawcett said that created an unfair playing field for the two sets of candidates.

“In my mind, there’s a significant advantage to being behind a computer,” Fawcett said. “You don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes that could play into somebody’s hand versus having an envelope with the questions that, you pull them out and read them as they’re read to you sitting in front of eight people, or seven people.”

Brooks-Buck, in an email prior to the Feb. 25 meeting, said the process was fair for every candidate.

“All candidates were asked the same questions,” Brooks-Buck said. “All candidates could see the persons who interviewed them, and all candidates were assessed in the same way.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition of Open Government, said FOIA does not speak to how the interviews are conducted.

“That’s not to say the candidates don’t have a point, but it’s a point separate from FOIA,” Rhyne wrote in an email about the different formats of the interviews. “FOIA only says that they can conduct the interviews in closed session.”

Rhyne said that is supported by the personnel exemption under both 2.2-3711(A)(1) and 2.2-3712(B), which states that “the notice provisions of this chapter shall not apply to closed meetings of any public body held solely for the purpose of interviewing candidates for the position of chief administrative officer. Prior to any such closed meeting for the purpose of interviewing candidates, the public body shall announce in an open meeting that such closed meeting shall be held at a disclosed or undisclosed location within 15 days thereafter.”

Brooks-Buck, prior to adjourning the Feb. 18 special meeting, said there was “a false and misleading statement posted on Facebook” — she did not say whose Facebook post it was — alleging that the board was meeting illegally and in violation of a FOIA requirement because interviews with prospective School Board candidates should have been made public.

FOIA, however, allows closed meetings for such purposes.

Johnson’s first meeting as the Sleepy Hole Borough representative to the board will be March 11.