Town attorney defends closed session for study

FRONT ROYAL – The Town Council’s attorney defended the council’s decision Monday to talk about a salary study behind closed doors.

The council convened in closed session prior to its regular meeting to discuss several items, including a town employee compensation study underway by Paypoint HR. The council voted on the motion to go into the closed session “with respect to discussion and potential implementation of the results of a preliminary draft of a town employee compensation study prepared exclusively for viewing by and discussion with the Town Council and certain town staff in closed meeting with respect to specific town employees.”

The motion went on to cite the personnel exemption as a reason under the state code to discuss the matter in closed session. The motion also cited as a reason “the discussion or consideration of the investment of public funds where competition or bargaining is involved where, if made public initially, the financial interest of the governmental unit would be adversely affected.” In other words, the council felt that making any salaries contained in the study draft public would give other local governments or potential employers an advantage when seeking employees.

The council entered into a contract with Paypoint to study salaries and positions in the town government offices. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act does not exempt salary data exceeding $10,000 a year from public view. But Town Attorney Doug Napier told media representatives at the meeting that the study could contain information such as recommendations to eliminate certain positions that, if made public, might cause chaos or prompt resignations. Before the council resumed its closed session, Napier said that members had not yet seen the draft.

“It’s by position, specific employees,” Napier said. “I cannot say this but it’s possible some positions may even be eliminated. It’s a very all-encompassing thing.”

“It’s about many things but whether some individuals should have salaries adjusted, whether a position should be eliminated,” Napier went on to say.

When asked if the study doesn’t identify employees by name, Napier said “well you can figure out who you’re talking about and that would be really damaging to the town.”

“I mean if people think ‘well, my God, my position may be eliminated,’ they’re gonna leave,” Napier added. “What if where we are with this the Town Council says this isn’t what we want from the study. Go back and revamp this.

“And what if where we are with (the study) they say with particular employees you’re way underpaying them, you need to pay them more and the Town Council says ‘we’re not gonna pay that kinda money,’ and the employees think they’re gonna be getting a big pay raise and they’re not. I mean that would create havoc and this was created specifically for this closed meeting. We don’t know what’s in it. Nobody knows what’s in it and there’s a specific statutory exemption for this.”

The town paid $25,750 for the “final product” of the study.

“We don’t have the final product,” Napier said. “This is not the final product. When the final product is ready it will be made public. This is a work in progress. That’s all it is.”

Napier acknowledged the process is at a point where the Town Council can decide if it wants the consultant to continue the current direction or change its approach.

“Even if it was just salaries, it wouldn’t necessarily be public at this point,” Napier added. “It’s recommendations. It is suggestions. It’s comparisons.”

Town Manager Joseph Waltz responded to several questions about the study by email Tuesday. When asked for a copy of any documents that call for Paypoint to produce a draft of the study prepared exclusively for viewing in closed session, Waltz stated:

“The Town and its consultants have mutually agreed during the ongoing course of the preparation of the study that this is an appropriate method to deal with this at this point in time. There are no separate documents to this effect, and none at this time are needed, as this has been mutually agreed upon between the parties. The parties have a good working relationship.”

Waltz went on to respond that the draft contains data about salaries for certain town employees as well as information about the performance of current staff members. Waltz did state that the town would release the study once finalized.

“The entire study, when complete and correct, will be released to the public,” Waltz stated. “It is the intent of the parties and is anticipated that the entire study will be complete and correct in January 2018.”