The case for closed meetings

Published 6:57 pm Saturday, September 13, 2014

By Kermit Hobbs

Recently, the problem of inadequate funding of teachers’ salaries and other educational needs in Suffolk prompted a City Council member to suggest a task force be formed to discuss the issue and propose a plan to deal with it.

Such a task force was set up, consisting of two members of the City Council and two members of the School Board. The members have expressed optimism about dealing with the funding problems.

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Before the group was able to meet, the city attorney opined that the meeting should be open to the public and not a private session as the members had preferred.

I understand that it is natural for people to want to be informed on every aspect of government, but I believe that sometimes it is not in their best interest to do so. To some extent, I base this opinion on my experience as a Virginia Certified Mediator. Over the past few years I have conducted more than a hundred court-referred mediation cases in Suffolk, Norfolk and Chesapeake.

Mediation is a form of negotiation between two parties, usually arising from a conflict. One of the hallmarks of a good mediation is that the two parties, rather than attacking each other, attack the problem they share. A successful “agreement” is a solution to the problem that all can support. It is just such a situation that the task force now faces.

For mediation to work, the parties must be free to communicate openly and honestly. The mediator tries to bring out all the interests of both parties so they can be heard, not with an expectation of agreement, but for the purpose of fully understanding each other’s interests and objectives.

A key element in problem solving is brainstorming. Brainstorming means popping out ideas, no matter how practical or impractical, to be considered in looking for a solution to the problem.

The idea behind brainstorming is that the evaluation of ideas is done after they are all on the table. The best and most creative ideas emerge when people make no attempt to evaluate them before they speak.

Being able to speak freely and without inhibition is the essential element of mediation. Confidentiality in negotiations is so important that it is a legal requirement for court-referred mediations. On many occasions I have seen parties ask their own friends or family members to leave the room so they could speak more openly.

Here’s where the open versus closed meeting question comes in. When the participants are being watched, they address their remarks both to the other party and to the rest of the world. It is possible they will not be able to fully explain their interests to the other party without offending someone on the outside. Furthermore, it could be difficult for them to consider potentially unpopular ideas if they know that they could end up in the next day’s headlines.

If the objective of the task force meeting is to be a civics lesson, then by all means have the world watching. If the true objective is to find the best possible answer to a difficult problem, then allow the participants to dissect, hash and rehash the problem until they bring forth their best solution.

The public perception of the participants’ trustworthiness should be judged on the basis of the end product and its results, not on the words that were exchanged to bring them to it.

I commend the task force members for their willingness to address this problem in good faith. I wish them success, even in spite of their less-than-ideal circumstances.

Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at