Sunshine in Suffolk and Virginia

Published 10:32 pm Friday, March 18, 2016

As the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press concludes its annual commemoration of Sunshine Week, it is appropriate to take a moment to examine the state of open government in Suffolk and throughout the commonwealth of Virginia.

First, a bit of praise for Suffolk: Under the recent leadership of City Manager Patrick Roberts, the city’s government has operated more transparently than at any time during the administration of the former city manager.

There is no longer a sense of fear among city employees about their public interactions. Members of the public and the press are encouraged to speak directly with department heads about matters of public policy and operations. It’s a refreshing change from the days of carefully vetted comments and emailed responses to questions from the press.

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And Suffolk’s City Council has shown an encouraging amount of growth in the matter, as well. Whereas this group of elected officials sought only 15 months ago to pass an ordinance that would have allowed it to censure members who spoke publicly about matters that arise in closed sessions, on Wednesday they elected to forego a legally questionable closed session in which they were scheduled to discuss an ordinance regulating panhandling around Suffolk.

Council members and the city manager have made laudable advances toward openness, and citizens are the beneficiaries. We can all look hopefully forward to the day when there are no secrets in city government.

Sadly, the state’s legislature this year displayed an alarming penchant for actually increasing the level of secrecy in government, introducing, according to Virginia Press Association Executive Director Ginger Stanley, nearly 100 bills that “proposed changing the laws that affect your ability to keep a watchful eye on government actions.”

From bills attempting to remove the requirement that public notices be published in newspapers to bills that would have limited citizens’ access to public information, the legislative attack on open government was intense. Fortunately, those bills failed to gain the broad legislative support necessary for them to become law. Unfortunately, bills that would have expanded public access to public information also failed.

Government at every level best serves its citizens when its work is done in the light of day, rather than in the back rooms of city halls and statehouses. Our nation was founded upon the ideal of a citizenry that has the information necessary to choose its leaders wisely. Sunshine Week serves as a good reminder of that great ideal.