Ed. — This archived story originally appeared in the July 5 print edition.
BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE – The City Council on Tuesday, July 2, authorized an independent investigation into circumstances surrounding the recent mass shooting in which an employee killed 12 people and wounded four others at Building 2 at the municipal center.
“I’m happy that most everybody has signed on to this,” Vice Mayor Jim Wood said during a work session on Tuesday, July 2, prior to the vote during a formal meeting held later that day.
The independent investigation, which is separate from the ongoing law enforcement investigation of the worst mass shooting in the U.S. this year, will be conducted by an independent consultant with full access to workers and records.
Families of three people who died in the tragedy have sought such an investigation, according to reporting by The Virginian-Pilot. The city goal is to have the independent investigator in place as quickly as possible, while ensuring they have the resources to complete the work effectively.
The council directed City Auditor Lyndon Remias to award a contract to an investigative firm by mid-August, and will administer the contract without restricting efforts or findings. Remias is a council appointee, meaning he does not report directly to City Manager Dave Hansen, though he said his purpose in the investigation process will be limited to finding the vendor, administering the contract on behalf of the city and acting as a liaison.
He said he sees the role as meant to “ensure it smoothly gets off the ground.”
The solicitation for firms capable of conducting such work is expected to close on Friday, July 12, and “we do not want a firm with any conflict in fact or appearance,” according to the auditor’s presentation to council.
“We do want the buy in and the trust of our citizens, our employees, so we do want to engage a firm that does not have any conflicts,” Remias said during the work session.
That means determining whether a firm is doing business with the city or projects that it might do so down the line.
“To me, that is a conflict,” Remias said.
Remias noted that his office had been working toward this effort in anticipation of council approval, including engaging with officials who have done such things elsewhere. “Time is of the essence,” he said.
“I believe this is the correct way to go forward with it,” said City Councilmember Aaron Rouse, who holds an at-large seat. He also said he spoke with the state attorney general’s office, addressing some comments during the meeting that the state office could assist the city in conducting the review.
A couple of members of the City Council noted issues of public confidence, as well as perceptions that have led to inaccurate or misleading information online.
Wood noted some conspiracy theories that are “cringe-worthy, frankly.” He said this made it important for the public to understand an independent entity would look at facts surrounding the shooting. “We need to have no hands on this at all,” Wood said.
The vote during a meeting at City Hall that evening was unanimous to authorize the inquiry, though City Councilmember Barbara Henley expressed some reservations, including about misinformation that has been spread online via social media.
Henley said the resolution “has flaws that will present difficulty satisfying the resolved instructions.” She also said she was concerned that the scope might result in mistrust in conclusions or interfere with law enforcement’s work.
“My preference is that we would have followed our originally stated course to first receive the benefit of the police investigation and then determined the course necessary to review and complete those findings,” Henley said, stressing confidence in the police.
Henley said a climate of government distrust could mean the investigation might create opportunities for unfounded accusations.
As noted earlier during council discussions, those already exist. Henley gave one example, reciting a false accusation that appeared on social media.
“I can foresee blame being placed on people who are not here to say, ‘That did not happen,’” Henley said. “I just plead for people to be reasonable, respectful and just.”
Wood, speaking before the vote, said the investigation is “truly independent” and clarified that the auditor is a point of contact for the contract, not the head of the review.
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