Take transparency out of the shadows

Published 8:32 pm Saturday, January 31, 2015

Every couple of weeks, as the first order of real business after calling their meeting to order, pledging allegiance to the flag and conducting the nondenominational, deity-neutral invocation of nobody’s name in particular, the Suffolk City Council does something else that’s utterly without meaning: Members vote to affirm that they’ve only talked about the things in closed session that they’re allowed by law to discuss there.

The idea is that someone with a guilty conscience could take this opportunity to admit the transgression if closed-door discussions ranged beyond the closely and carefully defined topics Virginia law allows governing bodies to consider outside the view of their electorate.

In reality, a council member concerned with following the law should object vehemently and then leave a closed session that strays outside the boundaries proscribed by the law. At the very least, such a legal-minded councilman should share with the public the illegal content of the session.

Email newsletter signup

But a proposed clause in an updated code of ethics that Suffolk’s council will consider on Wednesday would swear members to silence about the content of closed sessions, even if they veer off the well-marked path of legality.

The change was proposed by Mayor Linda Johnson, whose perennial boasts about the transparency of Suffolk government sound noble to anybody who hasn’t tried to actually talk to a city employee or official without prior approval or wrest public information from the city without a mastery of the Freedom of Information Act, a fat wallet and a lot of patience.

Suffolk is legendary in Hampton Roads for controlling information, massaging the message and polishing its public image through a carefully designed and rigorously enforced set of rules for sharing even the most innocuous public information. But city officials’ Orwellian invocation of transparency in the face of tactics designed to promote obfuscation and opacity will reach a new level with a codified gag order.

Johnson said Friday that closed-session discussions should never be shared because, well, they shouldn’t. Setting aside the circular reasoning, Johnson’s right that there are legitimate reasons to keep much, if not all, of what’s said in closed sessions between the participating councilmen. Publicizing the closed-door discussions about personnel and legal matters or economic development prospects could cause serious complications with negotiations and could hurt people who do not deserve to be hurt.

Significantly, in more than six years of service at the Suffolk News-Herald, I have never knowingly heard or pressed for information from a closed session. We have never during that time published a story based on information from a closed session. And we’ve never had a councilman call us eager to share what happened behind closed doors at the most recent meeting.

Citizens around the commonwealth, however, benefit from the fact that their elected representatives can be guided by their consciences to provide background information about certain public decisions or freely blow the whistle on inappropriately closed meetings.

It’s a bit of a mystery why a mayor presiding over a City Council recently recast in a more populist mold by an electorate fed up with the status quo would choose to double down on the same-old, same-old by pitching a heavy-handed gag order that gives the impression of an utter lack of respect and trust for the people those voters elected.

This effort to overpower conscience with a questionable code of ethics proves far more about Suffolk’s commitment to transparency than the references to it in a dozen empty speeches.