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Hanover’s Board of Supervisors hopes to change a Virginia law’s definition of a “meeting” at the 2014 Virginia General Assembly in Richmond.
Supervisors unanimously agreed to request an amendment to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which would allow public officials to meet in groups of three to discuss public matters outside of already open scheduled meetings.
In a July 25 meeting, the Board of Supervisors unanimously supported the proposal, introduced by Mechanicsville District Supervisor and Board Chairman W. Canova Peterson IV.
“[The current law] effectively inhibits communications,” said Peterson.
As the law stands now, Hanover’s unique seven-member board can only discuss public matters “two-by-two,” as Peterson called it.
Existing law was established to prevent a voting quorum of elected officials from discussing public business outside of advertised and announced meetings. In a five-member elected body, three members constitutes a quorum. But, because Hanover has a seven-member board, a quorum consists of four members, meaning that even if three supervisors are together outside of a meeting, they would not be able to vote.
Still, under current law, if more than two Hanover supervisors get together to discuss county business, then it would be considered a meeting and the board would be required under FOIA to inform media of the time, date and location of the meeting.
Peterson complained that the process is inefficient.
“If a constituent brings something to me, it takes me six conversations to get it out to the rest of the board,” Peterson said.
He compared the process to the children’s game of “telephone,” where one person comes up with a phrase and passes it onto another person who then tells someone else. The phrase continues on until it travels to the very last person, often very changed from the original concept.
The amendment would not affect a number of localities with five-member boards of supervisors, like those in Chesterfield and Henrico, but it would apply to Richmond City Council, which is comprised of nine members.
To Peterson, the amendment will make for a “more efficient government.”
However, Megan Rhyne, executive director at Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the change wouldn’t mean a more transparent government.
“This would undoubtedly lead to more meetings outside of the public view,” said Rhyne.
That is already happening in some places. Rhyne said she often hears of residents from various localities, not necessarily Hanover, attending public meetings where officials made their decisions before entering the room.
“This will occur more often,” Rhyne said.
A resolution, like this one, requires a sponsor in the Virginia House of Delegates or the State Senate. Peterson said there is not a sponsor yet, but the process of finding a senator or representative has begun.