E-meetings of the future?

A new threat to open government
The Times of Smithfield

Imagine this scenario. The Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors is meeting, and you attend in order to give your views and watch the decision to be made on a controversial zoning issue.

You and other interested residents are sitting in the audience. A clerk, the county administrator and county attorney are there, but only one supervisor, the chairman, is present.

As the meeting opens, the chairman calls the roll, and his four fellow supervisors answer over a conference phone set in front of the dais. The other four members are "phoning in" their presence from home or their office.

When the controversial zoning issue comes up, you and other concerned residents make your objections to a high-density apartment complex, talking to the chairman and to the telephone. The chairman appears interested. The phone in the middle of the room does not.

You want to believe the supervisors sitting at home are listening intently, even though their feet may be propped up on their recliner or desk. But are they, or did they just wander into the kitchen for a snack while you were speaking?

The hearing ends, the supervisors vote unanimously to approve the rezoning and you go home, wondering what just happened.

Well, what just happened was that you attended a "modern" electronic meeting, as defined by Governor Bob McDonnell's Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring.

A work group of that commission came up with the idea a year ago that to "streamline" government business and save the cost of holding public meetings, the state should allow them to be held electronically. Under the plan, the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors — or School Board, Planning Commission and other public bodies — could stay home for half the meetings held each year.

Presumably, they'd still be paid their annual stipend, but might save taxpayers a few dollars by not having to drive to the courthouse.

The cockamamie plan didn't gain traction last year, but the governor's commission hasn't had a lot of success, and appears to be looking for a couple of proposals around which victory can be declared. So, stand by. Your right to face your elected or appointed local government representatives is in peril.

There is honesty in face-to-face contact between public officials and constituents that unquestionably affects the policy-making process, and a significant degree of that honesty will be sacrificed when we no longer demand that public bodies hold meetings in a single, public location.

The General Assembly years ago acknowledged the transition to the digital age and the benefit of allowing some electronic participation in public meetings by state agencies. State bodies, where travel distance can sometimes inhibit participation, are allowed to have members participate electronically so long as a quorum is sitting in one location.

Even that limited authority can be abused by people who think that their time is too important for the public job they have accepted.

But what the governor's work group is seeking is a radical departure from the transparent system of government that Virginia has strived to achieve in recent decades.

The governor would do well to look elsewhere for savings and leave our system of public meetings intact.