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Augusta County: Seaton Continues to Support Transparency, Opponent Higgs Advocates Return to Secrecy

Written by: Michael Phillps

AUGUSTA COUNTY, VIRGINIA – The race for the Wayne District seat on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors has become a defining battle over government transparency, pitting incumbent Republican Dr. Scott Seaton against independent challenger John Higgs. With election day looming, the district’s voters are faced with a stark choice that may shape the ethos of local governance for years to come.

Last year, Seaton revealed he had recorded closed sessions with his university-provided cell phone after the passing of his wife, to help him remember meetings during a time of grief, a revelation that led to his censure and stripped him of county committee responsibilities through December 2023. While Seaton thought he was taking digital notes, it seems instead he inadvertently recorded evidence of federal crimes committed by other Board members, according to a letter Seaton sent the Department of Justice last month. Despite the board’s reprimand, Seaton has remained steadfast in his commitment to open government. The county, meanwhile, has hired a team of lawyers to fight any public release of Seaton's recordings.

“We’re making too many decisions in the backroom instead of coming out and letting the people hear us make decisions and correct us when we make the wrong decisions,” Seaton has stated, emphasizing the need for public oversight in the democratic process.

Since Seaton's call for openness, the frequency of executive sessions has decreased significantly. A comparison of the board’s meetings over the last six months to the same period last year shows a reduction in closed sessions from 15 to 6, a 60% decrease that has not gone unnoticed. This push for transparency, however, has caused friction within the board, with some members, who also share the Republican ticket, seemingly endorsing his opponent.

John Higgs, a vineyard owner and former cigarette manufacturer, has taken a contrasting stance, advocating for the importance of closed sessions in fostering a productive and candid environment for decision-making. Higgs believes that the ability to deliberate without the glare of voters is beneficial for the county’s progress.

“The most important thing is for us to have a collaborative atmosphere to work together,” Higgs has explained, advocating for what he sees as practical governance over open government. In a statement seeming to mimic Higgs, Augusta County Board chair Mike Shull told the News Virginian that "Dr. Seaton continues to demonstrate his lack of ability to work in collaboration with others on the board", a further criticism of Seaton recording alleged illegal acts by Shull and others during closed session meetings. We can't be sure what Higgs means when he uses the words "collaboration", but it is pretty clear that Shull and others believe "collaboration" involves backroom deals and conducting the people's business in secret.

The issue has not only drawn a line between the candidates but also among Augusta County’s residents, who are now weighing the value of privacy in governmental affairs against the right to transparency.

Both candidates agree that the relationship between the Wayne district and the board has been strained. Seaton attributes this to a culture within the board that he believes is resistant to accountability and focuses on keeping secrets from the public. In contrast, Higgs aims to mend fences, focusing on returning to closed session meetings to carry out a wide and expanding array of county business, which Higgs thinks is needed to calm down angry voters in the county who are demanding transparency.

As November 7th approaches, the citizens of the Wayne District are confronted with a choice: to go back to confidential, behind-the-scenes board decisions and closed meetings or to support continuing a change in culture on the Board that values transparency and public engagement. With the board's approach to governance at stake, the outcome of this race could serve as a referendum on the openness of political processes in Augusta County.

The polls open early on Election Day, and many eyes, both within and beyond the county lines, will be keenly observing the results. Stay with Breaking Through News on Tuesday for updates on this and other races across Virginia.

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