Recessive behavior

Over the weekend, the Roanoke Times reported that the Salem City Council took an expensive retreat to a West Virginia resort to talk city business in more comfortable climes.

Out-of-town retreats are nothing new. Though not particularly public-friendly to begin with, at least most local governments who favor these jaunts keep them close by or at least in-state. But a West Virginia resort?

What's worse, though, is the way the council did it. At the end of a regularly scheduled meeting, the council called a recess. A 4-day recess. The council announced at the time that the meeting would resume at the West Virginia resort, but many meeting attendees had already left, and there was no other public notice that the council would be taking up the rest of the agenda in another state, amid facials, golf and expensive dinners, even though the retreat had been planned since February, according to the city manager.

It's all perfectly legal, according to FOI Advisory Council Exec. Dir. Maria Everett. There's no requirement that notice be provided to the public when a meeting is going  back into session after a recess. But let's be serious: Most of us think of a recess as a let's-go-stretch-our-legs kind of thing. Let citizens and their elected representatives mingle, maybe they need a cooling-off period. Maybe they need a bathroom break. But what they don't need is four days off so they can sneak off to another state to finish the public's business.

Of course, the city council members would bristle at the notion that they snuck off, since, as mentioned, FOIA allows this kind of circumvention. But Everett and others -- like the Roanoke Times' Shanna Flowers -- have it right when they say it sure doesn't look good.

We've heard similar complaints from a citizen about the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors. And there are probably more we don't hear of.

My question is WHY? What good could possibly come from deliberately distorting the notice requirements of FOIA? Even if there's absolutely no impropriety intended, it looks TERRIBLE. Citizens and the press rightly feel cut out of the process and suspicions are immediately aroused.

So here's a notion: If you must retreat, then retreat. But be honest about it. Don't hide behind a "recess" to get around letting the public -- all of the public, not just the ones at the meeting -- know what you're doing and when. It's basic common courtesy, and it's basic democratic government.


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