The mayor’s response: ‘Committed to being open and transparent’

Published 8:51 pm Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It is with dismay and disappointment that I read your editorial Saturday morning (Sept. 25, “Semi-public in Suffolk”) regarding the recent Suffolk City Council retreat held at the Suffolk Health and Human Services Building. It was a very productive two days when all were welcome to hear about some of the needs, concerns and goings on in our city government. For you to imply that the retreat was in any way secretive or poorly planned is not only unfair to those who worked so hard to put it together but, more importantly, it is unfair to the taxpayers of our city, who were led to believe that this was anything out of the ordinary or, worse yet, not in their best interest.

A retreat is by its very definition different and distinct from a regular work session or meeting in that it is typically much longer and has broad topics that serve as the beginning of the planning for the intermediate and more far reaching needs of the city. It tends to be a time when thoughts are explored and visioning is in the forefront. Having said that, it should be understood, as I am sure this paper does understand, that actions are not taken as your article would imply on items requiring more public scrutiny. Certainly we would not entertain the building of a new municipal center without much more public discussion, public hearings, and final action during a regular council meeting. Further, such an expenditure would be a part of the CIP process which goes through multiple reviews and the Planning Commission prior to a council decision.

I find it odd that the editor would say this meeting was not transparent since your very own reporter, as well as the Virginian-Pilot reporter, was there with us for the entire two days. We had many of our regional partners with us to give their updates, and citizens did come and go. The editor refers to the time that this was held — two workdays from 9 to 5 — as unusual and not good times for the public. When would you have us have such a lengthy event? Weekends are surely not good for the public, nor would long late evenings be conducive to more participation. Further you refer to the place of the event as not being acceptable to the public yet this is one of the most visible and publicly utilized facilities in the heart of our downtown.

I have been on Council since 2000 and would like to give you a little history on the retreats of the past and let the citizens compare for themselves. In the early 2000s, retreats were held not only out of our city but also out of our state in places such as Newburn, N.C., Annapolis, Md., Staunton, The Tides Inn on the Rappahannock River and Williamsburg. It should be noted that the selection of the retreat location was made by the administration and not the City Council. There was no public presence, very little press coverage, lots of private discussions, expensive dinners, expensive hotel bills and many dollars spent on facilitators. Some would say these meetings were productive while most I believe would find them to be extravagant and totally out of the public eye.

For the last several years and certainly under this current council and administration, the decision has been to hold our yearly retreat within the city limits, in a city facility, open and available to all, and at very little expense. We use only local vendors for our food. We have no before- and after-dinner drinks, no rooms with jetted tubs and no late nights around the pool. I never found these events to be acceptable.

The retreat that we held this past week was public, productive, efficient and for the benefit of our city. There will be much follow-up and discussion in the coming work sessions and council meetings regarding many of the retreat items. I might add that at no time did we go into closed session, and every statement was made in the eye of the public.

One final note on the comment in your editorial regarding no prior agenda of the meeting: If there was no prior agenda given out, how is it that the retreat agenda was printed in your paper before the retreat was held? My thanks to Tracy Agnew, who attended the entire retreat and reported on it daily.

It is important to note that virtually every city holds yearly planning retreats and, generally, they are not held in City Hall. The current council has made it our policy to hold the retreat in our city, in our facilities, and with any dollars spent staying in our city. We are committed to being open and transparent, and that is exactly what we will continue to be. Your editorial board certainly may see it otherwise, but I do not see how we could be anymore transparent or accessible during our retreats unless we just don’t have them at all, and that would not be in the best interest of the taxpayers.

As for the negative image that the media has attempted to paint of our city regarding openness, I again say we continue to provide information to all on a daily basis, and we have absolutely nothing to hide. I am proud of what this administration and council have accomplished. Suffolk’s city government is far more open today than it ever was, and the media knows that. We are committed to doing the work of the citizens and bringing forward the best result possible for all the people that call Suffolk home. That is exactly what this retreat was about, and the citizens will hear much more in the months to come.

Linda Johnson is the first mayor of Suffolk to have been elected by the people of the city. Email her at council@city.suffolk.va.us.