CHRISTIANSBURG — Councilwoman Johana Hicks struggled to hold back tears Tuesday evening, responding to a legal opinion on several ethics complaints against her that her colleagues discussed.
“You’ve made this about me ever since the beginning,” said Hicks, who’s still just months into her council term. “I’m tired of the attacking, of you guys coming after me … You’re blaming me for things you guys are doing to me.”
The letter, which Mayor Mike Barber wrote and read out loud Tuesday, draws from a town attorney review of a code of ethics complaint made against Hicks earlier this year - although the document itself doesn't specifically name a council member.
Barber's letter covers a review of social media communications, emails and personal actions.
"I believe that while the First Amendment right allows certain freedom of speech, I do not believe it protects a person from making false and misleading claims about individuals, both public and private citizens," the letter reads. "I find that there are many innuendos that claim certain facts that are not true and certainly may be taken in a vein of harming a reputation of innocent individuals."
One example of those claims, the letter reads, was an inference that an official from another jurisdiction left their job after money was missing from that locality's budget.
"An area, which this individual had no control of or access to," the letter reads.
Barber wrote that he also found a "disturbing series of attacks" on council members, town administrators and individuals simply due to them not sharing the council member's views on topics such as the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport, Downtown Christiansburg Inc., the town's farmers' market and venue Great Road on Main.
Barber wrote that he determined that the council member has violated the first line in council's code of ethics, which is to "comply with both the letter and the spirit of the laws, ordinances and polices of town government."
The issue Barber linked to the code of ethics problem is a report that the council member had work done on a property without a building permit and only obtained the permit after the fact. That was not addressed in any further detail Tuesday.
Hicks, who won her town council seat last November after getting the most votes, made repeated references Tuesday to her issues with a non-disclosure form that she declined to sign shortly after her election victory in November.
Hicks, who has maintained a strong stance against closed council sessions, was asked by town officials to sign the agreement ahead of a Nov. 14 meeting that town council planned to hold in private. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss contract town attorney services. Hicks’ term had not officially started at the time.
“You guys told me that you had to sign NDA forms,” Hicks said Tuesday. “Where is your NDA Mr. [Henry] Showalter, Mr. [Brad] Stipes?”
Hicks then went on to claim that Councilwoman and Vice Mayor Merissa Sachs had created a fake social media account to harass Hicks and her friends online.
“I feel threatened, I feel scared. You haven’t even taken the time to know who I am. I lost everything in my life,” Hicks said in reference to a tough childhood in her native country of Colombia.
Sachs declined to issue any comments during the code of ethics discussion.
Correspondences The Roanoke Times obtained from the town show some other council members raising questions about the issues with Hicks and eventually stating their desire to have the problems discussed and addressed.
“What to do and where to go from here are both issues that need to be addressed if we are to have a functional board that can focus on real issues that affect the citizens who elected us,” Councilman Stipes wrote in an email last month.
Stipes reiterated some of those concerns Tuesday. He said he’s had major concerns about an erosion in the public’s trust of town council.
“That erosion has affected our efficacy as a board and has also spilled over to our staff and caused distress and anxiety,” he said.
Hicks has characterized the complaints and the other council members’ responses as nothing more than bullying done as part of a greater effort to shut her down.
Town council had initially planned to go into a closed session on June 9 to discuss the code of ethics issue, but ultimately decided to open the discussion to the public after Hicks raised concerns about the bullying she said has been done against her.
Tuesday’s discussion involved a reading of the ethics. Among other things, the document asks that town council members shall support and maintain a positive and constructive environment for residents, businesses and other entities in the area.
The code of ethics also states that town council members have the responsibility to intervene when the actions of a fellow member appears to be in violation of the code.
Barber's letter includes a list of options that the town attorney presented for moving forward. The options include solidifying findings that Hicks violated the code of ethics and certain sections of the town charter and Virginia code.
Based on those findings, potential actions include a public reprimand, the imposition of a fine or a removal of the member from town council due to a finding of "malfeasance or misfeasance." The letter does say that the town attorney believes malfeasance or misfeasance would be difficult to find due to whether the facts meet the standard.
The other options say town council could also find that no violation has occurred or do nothing due to the absence of a requirement that the elected body make a finding or take action.
Barber, however, concluded his letter: "I have found isolated instances of violations by other members, but none as blatant as described above."
At the end of Tuesday's discussion, Councilman Steve Huppert told Hicks: “It’s clear you’re not comfortable here on council,” adding that Hicks should consider resigning.