Bodies needed at public body meetings

The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council will be holding three workgroups this summer, and all will require input from the public, as well as from the “stakeholders,” people like me who advocate for certain causes.

(If you don’t know about it already, the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council is a gem of a government agency. Created in 2000, the office, headed by the always-entertaining, always-well informed Maria Everett, helps citizens, media and government with their FOIA questions. They do tons of training, and they provide a focal point for ongoing study of access issues.)

One of these workgroups is actually in its second year. It is looking at the section of FOIA dealing with access to criminal records (2.2-3706). The Virginia Press Association has created a draft that a group of press, access, government and police officials has been poring over to see what changes, if any, can be made to that section.

Another workgroup will discuss whether some records of the Virginia Parole Board should be open to the public. The board currently operates outside FOIA all together. Delegate Patrick Hope is asking the council to look at the board again to see if maybe some of its guidance documents -- those records that reveal something about the board’s thought processes in making parole decisions (generally, not with regard to specific individuals) -- can be made public.

And a third workgroup will look at public bodies’ use of electronic meetings. Currently, state entities can use electronic means of meeting at any time, though they are required to have at least one meeting where electronic communication is not used. Local and regional bodies cannot use electronic meetings unless a member has an emergency. Certain notice and reporting requirements attend both state and local e-meetings.

The key to all of the electronic meetings rules is that a quorum of the public body’s members must be in one place that is accessible to the public.

The e-meetings issue came to the council via bills from Delegates Tag Greason of Landsdowne and Mark Dudenhefer of Stafford.

Dudenhefer, a member of the Stafford Board of Supervisors until being elected to the House, attended the council’s May 23 meeting to state his support for changing the rules for local bodies. He said that the prohibition against electronic meetings discourages the participation of a lot of good people.

He’s probably right, especially in traffic-clogged Northern Virginia, where it is not unusual for people to commute one or two hours into D.C. or Maryland and back to Virginia for work. Or on the Peninsula, where one nervous driver in the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel can close off access to the whole South Side. There are people who will choose not to run for elected office because they can’t make the commitment to attend the meetings in person.

Though I am tempted to say something glib about the state’s unaddressed transportation problems, l instead find myself saying, “Hey, that’s life.” Elected office is a HUGE time commitment. There are meetings and more meetings to attend. There are reports to read, constituents to communicate with, events to attend, consensuses to be built. It is not for the faint of heart or thin of skin. It’s not for folks whose family lives demand more of an individual’s time.

Given these demands, a lot of people -- a lot of people with really good ideas, with really good listening, leadership and legislative skills -- are just not willing or not able to make a commitment to the job. All of our life choices require us to balance the pros, cons, realities, practicalities, emotional and financial considerations.

It would be my position that a person’s commute time -- and his/her ability to get to meetings -- is but ONE factor in a whole list of factors that would screen out would-be public officials. But traffic should not be raised to such prominence as to justify changing the rules to accommodate that person’s personal choices. Think of those who self-select not to run for office because they need to contribute to the care of a small child. I don’t think anyone would suggest that state law be changed to provide child care for elected officials just to make sure we attract the very best.

If it seems I’m being overly dramatic about this it’s because I fully believe in the value of a face-to-face meeting. It may sound quaint in this era of conversing on a Facebook wall post, relationship break-ups via text messaging or participating in a tweet-up, but there is no substitute for a meeting that is open to the public to be held where people can observe one another.

Businesses and organizations use video and phone conferencing all the time. But those meetings are usually closed to the public and their purposes are often very different, especially when they involve a group of people with a common goal.

Meetings of public bodies are meetings of people with different agendas, different approaches, different ideologies. HOW they are saying something (or listening/reacting to something) can be as important as WHAT they say.

Body language and attentiveness matter. If he’s physically present at the meeting we can see that guy shake his head and pass notes notes to his seat mate every time the mayor speaks. If he’s participating by phone, you can’t see that he’s on his 15th game of solitaire and he’s rolled his eyes every time the mayor speaks.

Video conferencing would help with that problem, but equally as important to the notion that we should be able to see the people who meet on our behalf is the notion that the public body sees the public. And the public can see each other.

Meetings -- still called Town Halls in some areas -- have traditionally been the place where the people gather to discuss the issues that will affect them. They want to know what their elected officials are doing, and they want to know who else in the community shares (or disagrees with) their beliefs. People can get together to hone their message, or to approach an opponent with a compromise, a new idea or additional information.

I’m glad the FOIA Council will be examining the issue. They’ve done it twice before and the current rules are the product of long and productive talks among local and state officials, media and access advocates. Technology is advancing and we should strive to see how it can be used to enhance public participation.

Whether you share my opinions about the importance of in-person meetings, I still encourage all of you to be part of the conversation. Come on down to Richmond and sit around the table with folks like you who care about open government in Virginia. See the process in person.

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