Closed-meeting gag considered

Published 10:38 pm Friday, January 30, 2015

City Council members are set to consider during their meeting next week an addition to their code of ethics that directs them not to disclose to others what they discussed in closed session.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said Friday that she asked that the item be brought up for consideration.

“It’s something people need to understand,” she said, noting she believes it will help members of the public understand as well. “You just don’t do it. It should be a piece of the code of ethics.”

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The proposed new subsection of city code section 2-39, the code of ethics for the council members, would read: “The members of the city council shall refrain from publicly disclosing matters that are discussed in closed session.”

By state law, government bodies are allowed to go into a closed session to discuss certain matters. For Suffolk City Council, the most commonly cited purposes for a closed session include discussing the acquisition or disposition of real property, discussing the relocation or expansion of a business, getting legal advice or discussing the performance or appointment of a public officer.

Nothing in the Freedom of Information Act’s open meetings section requires public bodies to hold a closed meeting for any reason. But the mayor said certain topics would not be “ethical” to discuss.

“If you want to discuss what’s ethical, it’s not ethical to discuss personnel, it’s not ethical to discuss legal, and it’s certainly not ethical to jeopardize the position of the city.”

She said she does not believe that the new provision would diminish transparency or violate council members’ free speech rights.

“It’s a code of how we would expect one another to behave,” she said. “If they don’t, they don’t. I don’t see any harm in that being in that list.”

The code of conduct already includes seven subsections, directing behavior such as how to bring concerns about the performance of a council appointee or city employee and how to request information from city employees, among other actions.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said it’s fairly common for public bodies in Virginia to put similar provisions in their codes of conduct.

“They can do those things internally, as a matter of internal operating procedures,” she said. “If there were actually any punishment meted out beyond a reprimand or something, that would be a total constitutional problem, because you can’t prohibit someone from speaking about information they have obtained legally.”

Rhyne acknowledged there are “all kinds of reasons you don’t want to talk about what you discussed in closed session.”

But, she added, “If anybody feels the need to speak publicly on something they talked about in closed session, from a constitutional standpoint there’s nothing that would prevent him or her from doing that.”

Councilman Don Goldberg said he is concerned about the proposed new subsection.

“We all realize, when we go into executive session about contracts or personnel or some type of negotiation, that if the information comes out it could damage the negotiations in some way,” Goldberg said. “I think I’m an intelligent enough person to understand that. Philosophically, I don’t think we need all these rules and regulations. There’s some commonsense things that you do, because you’re an intelligent adult.”

Councilman Roger Fawcett said he thinks the language should be stricken.

“I think it’s clear-cut we shouldn’t discuss issues,” he said. But, as far as putting it in the city code, “I’m not sure we want to go there.”

Councilman Tim Johnson also said he doesn’t “understand why they feel the need to put that in writing.”

Councilman Mike Duman said he thinks the proposed subsection “might have just been to clarify, when things are in closed session, there’s a reason for it.

“It really is crucial certain information doesn’t get out,” he added.

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said Friday afternoon he had not yet had a chance to look at his agenda packet and see the proposal for himself. Councilmen Lue Ward did not return a message, and no one answered the phone at Councilman Curtis Milteer’s home.

Another proposed subsection would change the code of ethics to state that “The members of the city council may not vote on matters involving the consideration of their own official conduct, where their financial interests are involved, or where the council member feels there may be an appearance of impropriety.”