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Hawkins fails to get retraction

FAIRMONT — At the Fairmont City Council meeting this week, Tom Hawkins argued that he and fellow council member Ruth Cyphers did not violate the open meeting law by having a phone conversation in October.

Hawkins’ failed request for a public retraction of the accusation drew a recommendation from the city attorney that all council members use caution in their communications with each other.

At the council’s Jan. 13 meeting, Mayor Debbie Foster said Hawkins and Cyphers had violated the open meeting law by discussing an email from Flaherty & Hood, the city’s interim civil counsel, concerning closing the investigation of city employees’ knowledge of expired criminal cases. Foster said Cyphers should have contacted Brandon Fitzsimmons, a labor attorney at Flaherty & Hood who initially pointed out the potential violation, instead of Hawkins if Cyphers had questions about the investigation.

Hawkins asserted that Fitzsimmons later determined that there was no open meeting law violation since he and Cyphers only discussed the email that the law firm had sent to all council members. Hawkins wanted a public retraction from the mayor about her statement. Hawkins declared he had verified with the attorney that the law was not broken because he and Cyphers only discussed only the email, not information on the investigation.

Foster maintained her stance.

“Councilor Hawkins has asked me if I would take back my comments that I made, and I’m not going to. I stand by what I had to say,” she said.

The exchange prompted Erik Ordahl, the attorney who has been representing Flaherty & Hood at council meetings, to comment.

“I can’t speak for what Brandon Fitzsimmons did or did not say to Councilor Hawkins,” he said. “What I do know is that there was not a quorum of council members so there wasn’t a definite violation of the open meeting law, but in talking with Brandon, even though there’s not a quorum, depending on the facts of the situation, it could be a violation,” Ordahl said. “However, we’re not in a position to say. That would be left up to a judge if it were brought forth that way.”

Ordahl recommended that the council use caution in its communications.

“Mayor and council, I think this is a good time to remind all of you that communication outside an open meeting among yourselves about anything dealing with potential city business could possibly be an open meeting law violation, so just please refrain from having that outside communication,” he said.

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