FOCUS ON FOIA
Dick Hammerstrom, a local news editor at The Free Lance-Star, is an advocate for open government and serves on several statewide organizations that urge transparency. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Private arrangements about public business
Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act permits two members of a public body to meet and discuss government business privately without public notification of the meeting. If three or more meet, it’s a violation of the law.
It’s always been my impression–perhaps naively–that such gatherings were merely a way for two members of the body to chat about upcoming board business or to lobby a fellow board member for his or her vote on a project.
But at localities east of here, such get-togethers are being used for business interests to meet with elected officials–one or two at a time, of course–and have their own discussions or lobbying sessions for major projects without public input or knowledge.
The Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg disclosed that the York County Board of Supervisors planned to meet with executives of the Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline last month individually or in pairs to discuss plans for a facility. The business requested the meeting and county officials were more than accommodating, arranging a schedule for board members and executives to use a county conference room.
More recently, again disclosed by the Virginia Gazette, a majority of the James City County Board of Supervisors and its Planning Commission agreed to a series of private, unannounced meetings with the developer of Kingsmill, a large resort community in the county. It seems that the business seeks to amend Kingsmill’s master plan to build more than 200 new homes.
The Gazette learned of the plans when an email was leaked to a reporter.
Both of these arrangements, for lack of a better term, are technically legal. Whether it meets the spirit of the law depends on how one views meetings about public matters that exclude the public.
No official action on such developments can take place unless voted on in a public meeting. Most likely, a public hearing would be required. However, public hearings may involve public opinions, but don’t require board members or petitioners to address or answer these questions.
Maybe these “meetings” are being held all over Virginia and no one knows about them. I certainly hope not. These two-at-a-time meetings essentially allow businesses to meet with an entire public body without the public’s knowledge.
This is what the Freedom of Information Act says about the spirit and intent of the law:
“The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government”
It goes on to say, “provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.”
Do these gatherings, though technically legal, meet the spirit of the law? What do you think?
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