When three council members in Georgetown, Delaware, decided to reissue and deliver a voided $24,750 check to a museum that flies a Confederate flag, their actions constituted a “secret meeting” in violation of state law, the Attorney General’s Office has ruled.
“A quorum of three councilmembers, through serial calls and meetings, discussed and took Council action to issue public funds outside of public view,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Dorey L. Cole when siding with the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.
The alliance filed the Freedom of Information Act complaint about the actions in August by Councilmembers Angela Townsend, Sue Barlow and Penuel Barrett.
Cole’s ruling said it’s likely a court would “void” the illegal disbursement of public funds and that her office “will consider forthwith” the alliance’s request to sue the town on its behalf.
In the meantime, Cole urged the five-member council to meet and reconsider the grant to the Georgetown Historical Society for repairs to the Marvel Carriage Museum.
The town’s awarding of the grant in late July has been hotly contested for weeks, in formal complaints and raucous council meetings.
Critics had urged the town not to approve the grant, and have called on the museum to remove the flag or at least move it indoors, saying the symbol of racism, hate, and division has no place on public display.
Since 2007 the museum has displayed an outdoor monument dedicated to Delawareans who served the Confederacy during the Civil War, and the rebel flag flies above the 12-foot-tall white granite slab. For years the state gave the museum a $14,400 grant, but concerns led lawmakers to halt the funding in 2019.
So the society turned to the town, which approved the money in late July.
But in early August Mayor Bill West had called the grant “dead in the water” because the alliance had pointed out that the application was received after the April 1 deadline and was never evaluated by a committee of town officials before being submitted to council. Both are requirements in town code.
West had voided the check, but then Townsend, Barlow and Barrett decided to take matters into their own hands.
Now that the Attorney General’s Office has ruled that they violated the state’s open meetings law, West and Tom Irvine of the alliance say it’s time for the trio to finally do the right thing. West, who is on the council as well as mayor, had voted against giving the money.
“Well yeah, they violated FOIA,’’ West told WHYY News. “I was really pleased with the Department of Justice.”
The matter is now back on the agenda for the Sept. 26 council meeting, he said.
“They have to say that they’ve done wrong and ask for the money back,’’ said West, who isn’t optimistic that his colleagues on council, who comprise a majority, will rescind their illegal action. “I don’t really think these three want to even admit that they’ve done wrong.”
In that case, the mayor is hoping Cole’s office files suit to overturn the vote so the cash can be recovered.
WHYY’s attempts to reach Councilmembers Townsend, Barlow and Barrett were unsuccessful.
Historical society president Jim Bowden also did not respond to a request for comment but West said he has no intention of relenting in his attempts to get the money back.
“If he doesn’t want to give the money back,” West said of Bowden and the society, “then it’s going to be a lawsuit for us to go after him. And if he’s still not going to give us money back, then we go after three council members.”
Irvine, a retired lawyer who advises the alliance, applauded Cole’s ruling. Irvine warned Townsend, Barlow and Barrett that if they don’t rescind their action and try to recover the money, the repercussions could be serious for “having their hand in the cookie jar.”
“The attorney general’s opinion is 100% correct. It’s a flagrant violation of the open government provisions in Delaware law,’’ Irvine said, noting that illegally reissuing the check compounded the initial mistake of giving the money even though the town’s application policy wasn’t followed.
The council members “retaliated [against West and other town officials] by breaking the open meeting law and grabbing the money,’’ Irvine said. “That’s just outlandish.”