Asking the right question

Published 9:40 pm Thursday, August 20, 2015

Considering the huge trust issues Suffolk residents have with their City Council, members of that elected body should take every opportunity to show transparency in their public activities. Conversely, they should eschew situations that would contribute to the perception of untrustworthiness.

Hence, council members should hold themselves to the highest standards when it comes to transparency, rather than simply leaning on a strict adherence to the letter of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

That’s why it’s so hard to understand why three council members would have opened themselves to question by joining a closed session of the Suffolk Economic Development Authority last week.

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Members of the authority went into executive session last Wednesday to discuss the disposition of EDA-owned property at Obici Place, Suffolk Industrial Park and the Point at Harbour View, as well as an upcoming economic development opportunity. Three members of City Council — Mike Duman (who is City Council’s liaison with the authority), Don Goldberg and Leroy Bennett — were at that meeting and joined the closed session.

Under state law, if more than two members of a public body meet to discuss city business, the meeting is a public one. The law also delineates the acceptable reasons for closing such a meeting to the public, and it requires that members certify that the discussion did not veer from one of the established, legal topics when they adjourn back into public session.

None of that happened with the council members following their closed meeting with the EDA. And that’s not illegal, according to city officials and an expert on Virginia’s FOIA. “The Freedom of Information Act is not violated by three member’s presence at another body’s meeting, closed or not,” Suffolk spokeswoman Diana Klink wrote in an email to news editor Tracy Agnew this week. Klink then declined to allow city attorney Helivi Holland to answer questions about the advice she gave to council members before they joined the EDA’s closed meeting.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, agreed with Klink’s assessment, but she also recognized there was a bigger issue in play than the simple question of whether the meeting was legal.

“In a closed meeting, you lose those checks and balances,” Rhyne said in an emailed response to questions. “The public has no way to assess for themselves whether these three are discussing public business, one by one or in a group. While I think a technical reading of the statute could allow the three of them to be in there so long as they’re just listening and not participating, it creates the appearance of impropriety and it cannot be monitored.”

And that’s exactly the point. Sometimes “What’s legal?” is the wrong question. In the case of whether council members should have joined the EDA in its closed meeting, the question should have been “What would be most appropriate, considering the need for more transparency in Suffolk government?”

Had they asked that question, it seems unlikely members of City Council ever would have been a part of that closed meeting.