Discussion is good

In an excellent editorial published in late April, the Daily Press criticized the Hampton City Council’s recent changes to the citizen comment period of public meetings.


The Daily Press didn’t fault the city for wanting to improve the meetings’ efficiency, or to eliminate personal attacks or the rehashing of past decisions. The newspaper’s complaint instead was this: “governing bodies that don’t engage the public during the public input parts of their meetings.”


Unfortunately, that’s not the only way in which debate is purged from public sphere.


  • Through the use of (legal) daisy-chain, one-on-one conversations prior to a meeting;
  • Through e-mail exchanges; and
  • Through the use (or overuse) of public meetings where confidentiality is merely preferred rather than needed;


Many public bodies seem to strive for neat and tidy packages; the no-muss, no-fuss transaction of public business. Have everything arranged ahead of time so we don’t air our dirty laundry in public. Never mind that the public is left holding the dirty laundry bag afterwards wondering what in the heck just happened.


Over the summer, with his job on the chopping block, the then-Newport News city manager made an hour-long presentation during a specially called public meeting to detail his accomplishments and make the case for why he should stay on with the city. Thanked for his time, the council did not ask questions, ask for clarification or rebut any points raised. They bypassed any comments of their own and avoided debate, then they voted immediately to lower the axe.


If it wasn’t in fact, it certainly gave the appearance that the fix was already in.


Back in November 2008, Virginian-Pilot columnist Kerry Dougherty wrote about the Virginia Beach City Council’s reaction to the defeat of one of their own in the election days earlier: “She’s such a likeable person, . . . [b]ut we never did know how she was going to vote.”


Could it be that this council member preferred to discuss her potential vote in a public meeting?


True, as reported the same week by the Loudoun Times, some elected officials “debate” each other as if they were about to meet in a UFC death match:


“Yeah, go ahead and grin. Are you enjoying it?” one Loudoun County supervisor asked another. “You made me mad. It only took you two and a half years. You’ve made me mad before, but this is the first time I’ve done it on public record. Keep it up! Keep it up! You’ll regret it!”


(The paper noted that the fight started as the board was discussing whether members of civic organizations should be obligated to follow Freedom of Information Act laws.)


Maybe it’s our aversion to confrontation that has some local lawmakers scrambling for the sterile certainty of a debate-free meeting. I’d like to think (and hope) that it’s not an attempt to keep the public out of the process by denying them one of the great tools -- observation of, and, to a lesser extent, participation in public meetings -- of American democracy.


And so, I have a simple question of my own for elected officials across the state: Can’t we just talk about it?

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