Editorial: Into darkness

Posted on Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Hanover County wants the legislature to change state open meeting laws because they make it harder for supervisors to meet and discuss county business outside of the public boardroom.

We wonder if thieves will lobby the legislature to weaken the laws that criminalize the theft of private property. Maybe, drunk drivers can convince the General Assembly that its standard for impaired driving should take into account a driver’s ability to handle his or her liquor.

This latest proposal is ridiculous. For starters, modern electronic communication makes changing Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act unnecessary. Supervisors could very easily send group emails or text messages to communicate with one another. If they discuss county business through these means, the correspondence becomes a public record, unless it falls under the slew of exemptions in Virginia’s already weak FOIA.

Still, if the county’s elected officials are discussing the latest zoning case or budget amendment, these records would be open to the public.

Three supervisors discussing the same issues over coffee would not be.

This is problematic.

While it’s understandable that supervisors would want to know as much about the business coming before them as possible, there are other means the board can take that don’t violate the public’s trust. They could hold work sessions, for example, which would be open to the public.

It’s also understandable that the two-person standard doesn’t equally apply to Hanover, where it would take four members to constitute a quorum. But, changing laws because they’re inconvenient is a slippery slope any way you look at it.

Virginia’s FOIA is meant to ensure transparency in government and to hold elected officials accountable. Unfortunately, if those doing the governing try to change the statute each time it becomes inconvenient or vexing, it undermines FOIA’s intent and casts doubt on those trying to get around it.

 

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