Less than a year into the Lynchburg City Council’s new Republican majority, heightened discord has been on full exhibit in public meetings, called out by irate citizens and drawn out in more private correspondence.
Emails obtained by Cardinal News through a Freedom of Information Act request show a glimpse of how deeply some of the most factious issues have festered. Though Stephanie Reed, Marty Misjuns and Larry Taylor campaigned last year on a combined Republican front, political schisms between them and existing Republican council members Chris Faraldi and Jeff Helgeson have leaked more vitriol than interparty interplay.
Almost as soon as the races were won, division became apparent in the new Republican majority’s choices for mayor and vice mayor. Misjuns and Taylor backed Helgeson for mayor, but Democrats MaryJane Dolan and Sterling Wilder voted with Reed and Faraldi to make Reed the mayor and Faraldi the vice mayor.
At the center of much of that drama has been Misjuns, who was terminated from his job as a city fire department captain in October 2021. He has since sued the city, saying that he was dismissed because of political cartoons he posted on his Facebook page that mocked transgender people and that officials violated his First Amendment right to religious freedom when they retaliated against him. A federal judge dismissed his claim of wrongful termination in April but allowed his claim of a First Amendment violation to go forward.
The latest installment of council drama has been an accusation that Misjuns tried to find a “hit-man” to clandestinely record a town hall meeting organized by Faraldi to “make him look bad,” according to city correspondence that was posted online Thursday and has been verified by Cardinal News.
“Over the past several months, your behavior as a Councilmember has become increasingly concerning and is something that needs to be addressed,” Reed starts in a Oct. 9 letter addressed to Misjuns.
She was told Misjuns had tried to recruit a “[redacted] University student” to find someone to wear a body camera at the meeting and “set the Vice Mayor up with difficult questions,” the letter states. Reed said the incident was reported to the university and it’s being reviewed, and Misjuns didn’t address the accusation in an earlier response.
Reed tells him “what you did was unbecoming of a Councilmember and highly inappropriate,” later warning him to carefully consider his conduct.
In a reply letter dated Oct. 10 and addressed to the mayor, Misjuns doesn’t substantially address the base allegation, instead going straight on the offensive in listing off alleged abuses of power by Reed.
“Moving forward, I urge you to carefully consider how you act before spreading unsubstantiated and unfounded claims, that include false elements,” he fired back. “The only thing that is consistent in your official actions is that you give a free pass to those that sing your praises, and you try to use your official office to crush those that oppose you. If there are some things that I have learned about you in the past year, it is that you cannot be trusted to act with integrity and if you are accusing someone else of something — it’s probably because you are doing it.”
Prior to that, a major point of lasting contention has been Misjuns’ repeated insistence on bringing what he’s named a “Merit, Excellence, and Opportunity,” or MEO, resolution to a vote in a council meeting. The resolution has been volleyed by council members, city staff and citizens alike during meetings, work sessions and settings outside city hall.
It decries “divisive concepts,” and in discussions among council and with relevant city staff, Misjuns has posited it as a replacement for diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, training, equating the concepts therein with critical race theory.
In emails, he stated that the resolution had been “vetted by highly qualified legal counsel” but didn’t elaborate on that counsel when asked about it in an interview, citing attorney-client privilege.
Other members of the council have voiced objections or doubts about the resolution in the months since it was introduced, and members of city staff have described how existing policy already bases personnel decisions on merit and performance.
Misjuns first submitted the resolution to clerk of council Alicia Finney on June 20. It was disseminated to other members of the council and city leadership, according to emails obtained through the FOIA request. Reed opined that city hiring processes and personnel policies fall under City Manager Wynter Benda’s responsibilities, to which Misjuns responded that “[f]actually, with no disrespect intended, the City Manager is an unelected bureaucrat” and called for the council to take direct control on the issue.
He claimed that “the city government contributes it’s [sic] fair share to racial division in our city,” and warned that “[o]pposition to this resolution will reveal a person’s true character on this governing body.”
What followed was a series of feedback and discussion that involved other members of council, the city manager and the city attorney, and that quickly escalated in tone. The exchanges included Misjuns accusing fellow council member Sterling Wilder of supporting “sustaining racist and sexist concepts in city government” after Wilder, a Democrat, said he was against putting the resolution on the agenda. Wilder did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Council member MaryJane Dolan, the other Democrat on the council, said in an interview that the resolution is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that bears the potential to conflict with state and federal laws.
“The most damaging thing I think it does is the elimination of diversity training and education, which I think is so important when employees are dealing with each other. This is not a new concept at all,” she said.
Getting an item on the council’s agenda isn’t a given, she continued, and Misjuns’ repeated attempts to do so with the resolution after abundant discussions and emails about it is a waste of time for the council, staff and residents. Misjuns pushed again at the council’s Oct. 10 meeting to bring the MEO resolution to a vote, but an amended motion to punt it to a work session later this month was rejected 4-3.
“I think it’s an insult to the city that we would even consider this,” Dolan said.
The MEO resolution is part of a larger effort by Misjuns to bring city personnel matters directly up to the council, at times with little or no preamble. Another email chain starts with a request from Misjuns to put a closed-session personnel matter involving discussion of performance and discipline on the Aug. 8 meeting agenda.
“I don’t understand why the details are so vague,” Reed responded after being copied on the request. “And I don’t think we need to continuously address issues that are not our primary responsibility unless there is absolute evidence that we need to — which would mean it had been worked up the chain with no success and now Council needs to intervene.”
In response to a question about whether the matter had been brought before him, Benda wrote that Misjuns had confirmed the request for him but “out of concern for me, he did not share any further details.”
When Reed reiterated that standard personnel procedure should be taken into account and said that the matter was premature, Misjuns responded: “Thanks for ending your tantrum. It was very unbecoming.”
The Aug. 8 meeting was canceled, and a closed-session item with that description was not on agendas for subsequent meetings.
Misjuns has painted a dismal picture of the climate among city employees with a broad brush, citing nameless sources and stating in emails that more thorough evaluations and surveys would reveal “that at least half of the leadership team would need to be relieved of their duties.”
He clarified in an interview that he applied that statement to those in the city manager’s office and department heads across the city. He said he’s been told that performance reviews among city employees have “essentially gone away,” replaced by less substantive and opinion-based check-ins, but he acknowledged that he hadn’t checked with the city’s human resources department or other officials to learn more about what procedures are actually in place.
Contacted for clarification, officials in the city manager’s office stated that the city had pivoted to a new, biannual check-in process between employees and their supervisors. Such check-ins, based on HR trends, are meant to facilitate a dialogue rather than a one-way review and “are also designed to be focused on the employee and supervisor’s present and future with the City, and not the employee’s past performance.” A form for the process includes sections to fill in performance feedback.
When asked where he sees the line between the city manager’s office handling personnel issues and the council stepping in for direct action, Misjuns said “it’s whatever a majority is willing to do.”
“If there’s allegations of people’s civil rights being violated and there’s good cause to believe that … has occurred, I think that it is critical for us to have the courage to weigh in,” he said.
Reed said she trusts existing procedures to address concerns and issues, something Misjuns characterized as “rubberstamping.”
“It’s not our job to interfere with the processes that are already in place, but to work alongside our city manager if there are concerns,” she said.
In more of a symbolic move, Misjuns added an item to the city’s 2024 legislative agenda that seeks to “allow for elected officials an exception under the Freedom of Information Act to access otherwise exempted public records.”
At the Oct. 10 meeting, he cited it as an issue when seeking full, unredacted exit interviews from city police, given the Lynchburg Police Department’s struggles with hiring and retention. In an interview he also said that it makes no sense to him that the council should hear protected matters in a closed session but be denied requests for related records.
Several council members voiced doubt about his agenda item at the meeting and tabled further discussion to their next meeting.
Another request from Misjuns for the use of council chambers to host a press conference with Helgeson in August also escalated in internal emails. The request was ultimately denied, with Reed holding that such press conferences are reserved for emergent citywide issues.
Misjuns first met resistance from Finney, the clerk of council, who expressed similar reservations and asked what the press conference would be about. Misjuns pushed back, not elaborating on the reason for the press conference and asking, “Do we need to file a mandamus to accomplish this?”
Reed then weighed in with her opinion on the matter, starting off by telling Misjuns that “you absolutely did threaten Alicia and it is on the record for all of us to see.”
Firing back, Misjuns stated she was interested in “compelling speech of others. What comes next, must we pledge allegiance to you?”
“While you may have succeeded in censoring Council members during meetings with your iron-fist approach to governing, I will not allow you to control my voice outside of council chambers,” his response reads in part. “As a veteran, I’m totally disgusted by your disdain for free speech and love for government censorship. I did not sign up to defend government tyrants.”
“Oh Marty, that’s the best laugh I’ve had all week so thank you for that! Have a wonderful day,” Reed responded.
“Your arrogance fits your elitism,” Misjuns replied.
In response to interview questions about his rhetoric, Misjuns said he’s been frustrated with the mayor for not delivering on campaign promises as a conservative. He sees her actions as dodging responsibility for city employees facing down violations of their rights.
“It’s not about me attacking the mayor, it’s about delivering on what we said we would do for the citizens; it’s about holding government accountable and not embracing government for the sake of bureaucracy,” he said. “To me, it’s really about putting the people back in charge of their local government, so when I don’t see that happening, I’m gonna be frustrated.”
Reed limited her comments on Misjuns’ barbs.
“I will never support disrespectful behavior towards anyone,” she said. “There is an appropriate way to communicate with our peers and our city staff, and unfortunately I’ve witnessed some disappointing behaviors.”
Faraldi, the vice mayor, came under fire from the Lynchburg Republican City Committee for cutting short a vote on the MEO resolution in June, admonishing Misjuns for not following city procedures and saying his fellow council member is “downright disrespectful to our city staff, you are downright insulting to their character, you are downright to offensive to their reputation.” He did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Dolan, who’s served on the council since 2016, said Misjuns’ calling card back-and-forths have been unprofessional, unproductive and unprecedented at city hall. She said his disrespect of staff has been the subject of repeated citizen concern.
“It’s just horrible the way he treats staff, from a verbiage standpoint,” she said. “We’re going to be lucky if we keep people.”
Reed said she strives to foster unity among the city’s workforce and added that each employee is a valued asset.
“I would never want some of these recent events to discourage them from continuing to take pride in the vital roles they play for our city,“ she said.
Emails between Lynchburg City Council members
Here are excerpts from some of the internal emails between members of the Lynchburg City Council. These were obtained through a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request.
‘Whatever makes you feel like a big man‘
On May 8, a voter emailed members of the city council to express support for the city manager’s proposed budget that would cut the real estate rate from $1.11 per $100 to $1.01; Republican members of council wanted a rate of $0.89 instead. The voters expresses concern about funding for multiple programs, including schools.
Council member Marty Misjuns replied that the $0.89 tax rate would result in no program cuts. “We are actually providing record funding for instruction at [Lynchburg City Schools.]”
Council member MaryJane Dolan disputed that: “It really depends on how you spin it.” She said Lynchburg schools were getting less than they asked for, and less than the city manager had proposed. “The ‘record funding for instruction’ is Misjuns self crafted budget for LCS whereby he is dictating to LCS where the funds are to be used but in total is not more money for the LCS budget. Interesting about this piece is Mr. Misjuns’ wife directly benefits from the instructional piece.”
Misjuns replied: “I’m not familiar with how elitists do agenda-driven math … LCS continues to dodge requests related to showing us how they came up with their outrageous request and are unable to justify every penny they want to spend … What are they trying to hide and why is Mary Jane trying to protect them?”
Dolan replied to the voter, copying others: “I apologize for the bullying tactics that our councilman has used in his message. It is truly mundane when bullying tactics resort to name calling.”
Misjuns replied, copying others, including the voter: “Oh Mary Jane … do I really need to start sharing all your old emails and text messages so the public can be reminded of who the real bully is?”
Dolan replied, copying others, including the voter: “Go for it! Whatever makes you feel like a big man.”
Misjuns replied, copying others, including the voter: “No need to. What makes me feel like a decent man is the fact that I’ve never and will never use my position to go after a families livelihood.”
Mayor Stephanie Reed then replied, copying others, including the voter: “Please take this somewhere else or just between the two of you.”
Misjuns replied, copying others including the voter: “Sorry Stephanie. I’m not going to stand for lying – and you shouldn’t either.”
Reed then replied, copying just council members and the city clerk: “We need to be professional no matter what. If you are upset with a Council Member then I think it’s better to discuss amongst yourselves but that’s just my opinion.”
* * *
‘Thanks for your update, your highness.’
On June 13, Misjuns emailed clerk of council Alicia Finney to say that he had drafted a procedure for appointing school board members. An email exchange with city attorney Matthew Freedman, which is redacted, followed. On June 15, Finney emailed council members to ask how council would like to proceed.
Reed responded that “there has not been direction given by a majority of Council” to change the procedures and she was “comfortable” with the existing rules.
Misjuns replied: “Stephanie, that’s not up to you. Please keep in mind that your role as presiding officer is in meetings, not emails.” He said that a majority on council can amend the rules at any time. “You suggested we agree as a body on a way to do this before Tuesday in Work Session, and instead of flip flopping on your word, I would agree that what you suggest in the work session is the best way to go.”
Reed replied: “No flip-flopping here … There hasn’t been a majority of Council saying anything about your proposal to indicate they want to make these changes prior to Tuesday which means the body has not agreed therefore the current procedure is what we will have ‘nailed down’ prior to Tuesday. So what I suggested or referenced has happened … I appreciate your efforts in reminding me of what I said and my role. Just like I don’t decide for all, there is not any Council member who decides for all.”
Misjuns replied: “Thanks for your update, your highness.”
* * *
‘We are headed toward a dark abyss’
On June 20, the clerk notified council members that Misjuns had submitted an item to be added to an upcoming council meeting regarding hiring practices — his Resolution to Promote Merit, Excellence and Opportunity in City Government. He asked that it be placed under the “General Business” portion of the budget and that “I am not interested in negotiating with any staff on it.”
Reed replied: “Quick question, aren’t City hiring practices and related policies a matter for the City Manager to handle under our City’s form of government? … My thought is this isn’t our lane, this is a personnel/H.R. Policy that falls under Wynter’s [City Manager Wynter Benda’s] responsibility.” She asked the city attorney for his thoughts.
Misjuns replied by quoting state code: “We have the authority to manage and control the municipal affairs of the city.” He went on to say there is a “systematic problem in our local government” and that “let me be clear — the city government contributes it’s fair share to racial division in our city. This needs to stop.”
Misjuns further wrote: “The citizens gave us the keys to this castle and I intend to use them. I will not forfeit my zeal to eliminate taxpayer funding of racist and sexist concepts in our city government — it is contrary to equality, which many have died for. Opposition to this resolution will reveal a person’s true character on this governing body.”
Reed replied: “Obviously we should be against ANY type of discrimination” but asked “have you made any effort to talk to Wynter about your concerns? Do you know what steps the City may already be taking to address some of these issues? … I think conversations with our City Manager and even with H.R. privately, first, is the proper thing to do. Wynter is the boss of the Department Heads so if there a problem within any of his departments he should be the one to address it and make any necessary changes to policy. To make it public at a council meeting when the first step hasn’t been done looks like an opportunity to humiliate City Staff and will look bad on you, as well … I would also caution you since there are a lot of comments we regularly see from citizens who think some current Council members, themselves, have racist, sexist and other discriminatory tendencies based on behaviors and comments that are and have been made and observed.”
Council member Sterling Wilder, who is Black, replied: “I want to go on record that I am totally against this request.”
Misjuns replied: “I’m very surprised that you support sustaining racist and sexist concepts in city government. Why do you support so much division, Sterling?”
Wilder replied: “I would rather not go back and forth but the division started in January. God is not the author of confusion.”
On June 22, Misjuns wrote the city clerk to ask why his agenda request was left off. “It is my hope that this is an oversight and not a violation of my rights as a council member …”
She replied that it hadn’t been left off, that it was placed under the “Roll Call” section of the agenda, “as we have previously done with Councilmember agenda request items,” but was later moved to “General Business” following a conversation between Misjuns and the city manager.
Misjuns replied that “the most important thing to take away from this dialogue is the source of the obstruction to the council member, because that will come into account during performance reviews.” He copied the city manager and the city attorney.
Dolan replied to Misjuns’ agenda item: “Welcome to the tyrannical governance of ‘the New Majority.’ Make no mistake. We are headed toward a dark abyss.”
Misjuns replied: “You really think opposition to racist and sexist concepts is a dark abyss? I’m shocked that you would take that position.”
Dolan replied: “To be clear, the reference is the tyrannical manner in which you close out all conversation with city leadership for their input. Have a blessed day.”
* * *
‘Thanks for ending your tantrum’
On Aug. 1, Misjuns requested a closed session of council to discuss personnel matters. Reed emailed him to ask what this is about: “Can you please explain why we are once again discussing what appears to be a personnel issue? Have you worked this up the chain yet? … Are we even legally allowed to discuss this? … Personnel issues fall under the City Manager, so why are we discussing this?”
Misjuns replied: “If you want to discuss this feel free to call me.”
Reed replied: “Since you are the person requesting this on the Agenda you need to be able to answer the questions for all of us and having an email dialogue is the easiest way to do that.” To discuss personnel matters that haven’t gone through all the proper channels, she said, “comes across as micromanaging/overstepping and, in some cases, can put Council in bad positions if there is a legal component to it.”
The city manager emailed to say that he’d talked with Misjuns but that “out of concern for me, he did not share any further details.”
Reed replied to the city manager, copying Misjuns and other city staff, to say that Misjuns had not followed proper procedure to let council members and top staff know what was going on: “I have no interest in playing the ‘you can call me if you want to know something’ game.”
Misjuns replied: “Can you show me in writing this ‘process in place’ that you are asserting I violated. That’s quite an accusation.”
Reed replied: “No accusations Marty. Look at the roles and responsibilities of our city manager. Personnel issues start with him … So again, if you haven’t started with the basic conversations before taking it to this level then many steps were skipped and you are undermining the role of our City Manager. . . Have a great afternoon. I have meetings to get to and won’t continue the bantering. I’ve said what I think.”
Misjuns replied: “Thanks for ending your tantrum. It was very unbecoming.”
* * *
‘Your arrogance fits your elitism’
On Aug. 10, Misjuns requested use of city council chambers for a news conference that he and councilman Helgeson wanted to hold. The city clerk replied that it was historically reserved only for news conferences by the mayor in conjunction with city staff for city business, and asked what the event was about.
Misjuns replied: “Do we need to file a mandamus to accomplish this?” He pointed out that the city allows some non-governmental groups to use council chambers. “I … sincerely hope that City Hall does not choose to silence the elected representatives of the people and deny two elected represntatives of the citizens equal access to the chambers.”
Finney replied: “What I’ve done is no different than what I’ve done in the past. It’s really disheartening that your response is to threaten legal action against me instead of helping me help you.”
Reed then weighed in: “Marty, you absolutely did threaten Alicia. She simply asked you a question and did not say ‘no’ to anything, just asked for a clarification and also explained the traditional use for press conferences in council chambers. Your response was inappropriate and uncalled for. Alicia, I am very sorry for how you were treated.” She then agreed that council chambers should not be used by council members for news conferences for anything other than official communications during city emergencies. She suggested that Misjuns and Helgeson find another space.
Misjuns replied: “Stephanie, your authority over other council members ends when you adjourn meetings and as much as you may think or believe it is the case, you cannot manufacture facts. Also, I find it very interesting that as an elected official, you are so interested in compelling the speech of others. What comes next, must we pledge allegiance to you? Government compelled speech is an extremely dangerous position for you to take, and the polar opposite of our way of life in America. While you may have succeeded in censoring Council members during meetings with your iron-fist approach to governing, I will not allow you to control my voice outside of council meetings. As a veteran, I’m totally disgusted by your disdain for free speech and love for government censorship. I didn’t sign up to defend government tyrants. … Freedom of speech and expression is the American way, unless you are more interested in being part of an elitist establishment that controls everyone else — which is unfortunately what I and many others have come to understand threatens our city.”
Reed replied: “Oh Marty, that’s the best laugh I’ve had all week so thank you for that! Have a wonderful day.”
Misjuns replied: “Your arrogance fits your elitism.”
Reed replied again: “Once again, thank you Marty. Keep it up. This is great!”