Editorial: Open meetings should stay open

Posted on Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 9:52 am

We’ll call it a victory, for now.

Last week, Virginia’s FOIA Advisory Council declined to take up Hanover County’s request to review the definition of a public meeting.
Hanover’s seven-member board of supervisors originally voted to ask the legislature to change the statute that prohibits more than two elected officials from meeting to discuss public business, a change that would impact every elected body in the state and would diminish transparency in every county, city and incorporated town.

The board later softened their approach by merely asking the FOIA Council to “review” Virginia’s current open meeting laws.
We’re glad the FOIA Council politely declined. Opening the doors to “reviewing” the state’s open meeting laws would not have been wise. Those laws are in place to ensure that public business is taking place in front of the public, not behind closed doors, as Hanover officials would have liked.

According to Watchdog.org, a project of Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, Hanover’s county attorney, Sterling Rives told the FOIA Council that “eliminating the public meeting requirement for small groups would be more efficient and allow for better brainstorming.”
Rives also claims that “the public atmosphere isn’t always conducive to throwing up different ideas and debating those ideas” adding that “public officials are reluctant to do that in front of the press.”

Heaven forbid a politician have a gaff in public. It’s absolutely unprecedented.

Hanover’s elected officials should have the courage to think out loud about the issues that affect our county. The Herald-Progress has never condemned brainstorming. Trust us, it’s OK, encouraged even.

Virginia’s FOIA rightfully has a number of exceptions to the statute, including personnel discussions, consultation with legal counsel and discussion of pending economic development opportunities. These topics belong behind closed doors.

But trying to hash out the latest zoning case, amendment to the comprehensive plan, or ordinance amendment outside of the public’s watchful eye is a no-no and should remain so.

Chairman W. Canova Peterson IV said this week he expects talks on the FOIA change to continue. We urge him to reconsider.

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