Open task force good, FOIA expert says

Published 7:39 pm Saturday, September 13, 2014

The chairman of the Virginia Press Association’s Freedom of Information Committee believes Suffolk’s city attorney’s advice to hold meetings of a new task force in the open is on the right side of the law.

“You’re doing the public’s business, and any reason not to have it public should be very narrowly defined,” said Dick Hammerstrom, who’s also an editor at The Free-Lance Star in Fredericksburg. “They’re spending the public’s money, and they want to decide how to spend it privately. It just goes against any concept of open government. The public would want to know what they’re deciding, especially because it involves the education of their children.”

The new Joint City/School Task Force includes two members each from the City Council and the School Board, appointed by the mayor and School Board chairman, respectively. It was established after City Council members, including Mike Duman, recommended the idea. Duman had hoped the meetings would be closed to the public, believing it would encourage more candid discussion.


Email newsletter signup

Though talks about the task force began this spring, the body has yet to meet. Hours before its first meeting in July, which would have been in closed session, City Attorney Helivi Holland gave her advice that it should be open. The meeting was not held.

The Freedom of Information Act says that meetings of public bodies — including city councils and schools boards — shall be open, unless the topic of conversation meets one of many narrowly defined topics outlined in the act. Discussions regarding specific personnel, land acquisition and consultation with legal counsel are common ones for the City Council, while many of the School Board’s closed sessions involve consideration of appeals of disciplinary action against specific students.

The Act defines a meeting as an assemblage, whether formal or informal, of as many as three members of a body, meaning only two members generally would not qualify. But it goes on to say that any committee or subcommittee created by a public body to perform delegated functions or advise the whole body is a body unto itself.

“It is clear in the law that City Councils are included as a public body,” Holland wrote in an email to the News-Herald. “Additionally, it is clear that its committees are public bodies whether the committees are standing committees or ad-hoc committees.”

Holland also noted that letters between Mayor Linda T. Johnson and School Board Chairman Michael Debranski suggest the operation of the joint task force would be similar to any other standing committee. The intent of the task force also seems to be forthcoming action or advice, Holland added.

For his part, School Board attorney Wendell Waller said he was “not at liberty” to discuss his advice to the board regarding whether the meetings should be open or closed, because he gave the advice in a closed session.

If the task force follows Holland’s advice, it will be required to give notice of the time and place of meetings at least three working days prior to the meetings.

— Reporter Matthew A. Ward contributed to this report.