Keep public business in public

Published 8:36 pm Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Like many good things in life, televised City Council meetings have some unintended downsides.

One is to inhibit candor and open debate by elected officials and staff, who either play to the cameras with canned remarks, or say nothing of substance for fear of saying something they might regret.

Lost is healthy, unrehearsed discourse on matters of importance to taxpayers. Tough decisions either get hashed out in one-on-one private conversations before the meeting, or made hastily without thorough consideration and explanation. That’s a shame — and unnecessary.

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Officials in Hanover County in suburban Richmond apparently feel so inhibited by the presence of media at their meetings that they want to radically alter Virginia law’s definition of a public meeting.

A Hanover delegation recently lobbied the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council to study the possibility of watering down the Freedom of Information Act to allow governing bodies to “brainstorm” on sensitive topics outside the public view.

“Right now, meetings of public bodies … which are open to the public, which are held in a formal setting, are not ideal opportunities for brainstorming because there is simply limited time available on public meeting agendas, and many issues to handle,” Hanover County Attorney Sterling E. Rives III told the council, which makes recommendations to the General Assembly about Freedom of Information Act changes.

“The setting is not conducive to throwing out different ideas and debating each other on those ideas. As we might do in a private setting, you come up with all these ideas and then five minutes later you say, ‘Oh no, that was stupid, let’s not do that.’

“Public officials are reluctant to do that in front of the press.”

What Rives and his Hanover colleagues fail to understand is that reporters and cameras are simply the eyes and ears of taxpayers, many of whom cannot attend a board meeting in person but are vitally interested in the actions of their elected officials.

Citizens do not expect perfection from their elected officials. They do expect honest, heartfelt and transparent decision-making.

To suggest that can only happen outside the presence of the media and taxpayers is to forget the people whom politicians are elected to serve.

The Freedom of Information Advisory Council wisely shot down Hanover’s request.

The council’s chairman, Sen. Richard H. Stuart, R-Stafford, noted that occasionally putting foot in mouth goes with the territory in public service.

“I do it every day when we’re in session, make a complete fool of myself,” Stuart said, drawing chuckles from his colleagues. “Your (Hanover’s) position is they feel like they’ve got to do that in private, even though it’s public business that they are conducting.”

“This certainly does cause me pause,” added Stuart, a former county attorney. “Unless something is really sensitive and there is a real need for (executive session), things just go so much better when it’s right out there in the open.”

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is