Who makes the final decision? Based on what?

Who makes the final decision? Based on what?
by Megan H. Rhyne, VCOG Executive Director
This piece was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 19, 2014


As the bowl of brussels sprouts is passed around the dinner table, Mom brings up the topic of summer vacation. She envisions a relaxing week at the beach. Dad says he pictures hiking in Yellowstone, while the kids lobby for seven amusement parks in seven days. It’s a lively conversation, one full of arguments in support of or agains each possible trip.

Over the next few days, Mom and Dad consult their calendars, review their finances and take stock of the kids’ camp schedule. Meanwhile, the kids research roller coasters and print out pictures from the Internet.

The kids soon realize it takes too much time to get to all the places they want to go. One decides he’d settle for the beach, while the other guesses Yellowstone wouldn’t be too bad. At the same time, Mom realizes that a beach house is beyond their budget, and Dad realizes they’d need at least two weeks to do Yellowstone right. They make a few calls.

The next morning, Dad announces he’s rented an RV so they can camp at the beach. Mom announces she’s bought tickets to Busch Gardens. And the kids pick Cape Charles for their camping spot.

Quick quiz: When was a decision made? Or, for that matter, exactly what decision was made and who made it? There’s a bright yellow line, right, with discussion on one side and a decision on the other?

You don’t see it? Yeah, neither do I.

Discussions have a funny way of defying linear, chronological progression. They turn on themselves, double back, pick up some ideas, discard others, meld, disassemble. Through the back and forth, you get to a place where people either agree or else don’t disagree (there is a difference between those two). That place is called consensus, and once you have consensus, the next step is ratification (approval of the consensus).

So, why the dissection of problem-solving discourse? Because there seems to be a quaint belief among many members of various state and local government boards who feel it’s perfectly fine to talk privately in small groups -- two by two, then two by two again (also called daisy chain, serial or Noah’s Ark meetings), until everyone’s weighed in. It’s OK, they say, because these are just discussions. The actual decisions will still be made in front of the public at a public meeting.

If there really was a bright yellow line demarcating discussion and decision, that would be fine and citizens wouldn’t really mind. But there isn’t, and that’s not what happens.

Instead, what happens is that an agenda comes out a few days before the meeting and it says something like, “#4: Summer vacation plans.” And at the meeting, someone makes a motion to approve one day at Busch Gardens and six days camping in an RV at Cape Charles. All in favor, say “aye” (seven ayes); those opposed (silence). The motion carries unanimously. Next.

Not surprisingly, citizens are left stunned: What just happened? What vacation? Who came up with Cape Charles? What were the other options?

It’s all legal under Virginia’s open meetings law, but is it a good way to go about making a decision, a decision that spends taxpayer dollars or affects thousands of people? It’s hard to know if this is a good decision when there’s no indication of what was considered in order to get the voting members to this point.

Citizens -- voters -- are deprived of the opportunity to assess their elected representative’s thoughts on the matter, and the ground becomes fertile for suspicions to grow.

Many a board member would argue that these off-the-record chats are more efficient, and they are undoubtedly right. But consider: public meetings (and records) laws are for the benefit of the public, not for the ease of the board members or the efficiency of board meetings. 

The very first section in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act states two very important policy directives in the interpretation and application of the law: (1) “The 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”; and (2) “This chapter shall not be construed to discourage the free discussion by government officials or employees of public matters with the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

Of course, no one wants to force officials who run into each other at the farmer’s market into silence on the matters they have in common. And FOIA expressly allows chance meetings, discussion of public business between two members and even the polling of colleagues to determine how they’ll vote. But these rules were never intended to serve as a substitute for public debate or serve as cover from saying something potentially unpopular in public.

Because discussions have an uncanny ability to morph into decisions before anyone realizes, the majority of the discussions themselves should be held in public. Board members should resist the urge to engage in two-by-two meetings and instead be willing to hash it out in public, with the public.

It’s called democracy.

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