Smithfield code of conduct

Smithfield Times editorial, April 13, 2011

Voters do the evaluating

A facilitator, hired by the Board of Supervisors to work with them on their manners during an annual retreat, has proposed a "Code of Conduct" to be signed by each of the five.

The document, written by facilitator Dr. Michael Chandler, contains some good sugges-tions that the supervisors be tolerant, that they avoid abusive language and that their general be- havior in meetings not be threatening or disre- spectful.

There's certainly nothing wrong with those goals, though most of us might be left wondering why a group of adults would need reminders.

There are a couple zingers in the code, however, that appear to have been directed at recent devel- opments and which should give pause.

The first is that the supervisors agree to talk with county employees only with the permission of department heads or the county administrator. That, too, would seem reasonable if it were not so nearly identical to the recent effort to have Smithfield Supervisor Al Casteen seek informa- tion only through County Administrator Doug Caskey.

Mr. Casteen is an unabashed critic of some county policies, most significantly the Norfolk water deal, and his efforts to obtain factual data on county water use and expenses led directly to the demand by water deal proponents on the board to insulate employees from him.

If it seemed that Mr. Casteen's requests were being promptly and fully met, it wouldn't be a great concern, but that is in question. He, as well as others who question that and other policies, have a right to information that he has sought.

The second item that seems directed toward Mr. Casteen relates to the first. It calls on supervisors to "respect the principles inherent with closed Board sessions by not discussing or sharing what is discussed in such sessions with anyone."

It appears to be a response to a specific incident. During a recent closed session, according to Mr. Casteen, Supervisor Kenneth Bunch wanted to have a policy put in place that any employee caught talking with a supervisor without the county administrator's blessing be officially rep- rimanded.

The policy does not appear to have been adopted — though we may never know if it is being informally enforced. But it concerned Mr. Casteen suf- ficiently for him to question the closed-session conversation in public.

Mr. Casteen's concern was that the closed-door discussion involved a personnel policy, not a personnel matter. There's a huge distinction, and he understands it. The Virginia Freedom of Informa- tion Act allows closed-door sessions are permitted for the discussion of a specific employee or employees, but not for general personnel policy matters.

But the law goes further. It requires individual members of a public body to judge for themselves, individually, whether the group violated FOIA during the discussion. If a member thinks that a matter was improperly discussed, he or she is bound by the law to say so prior to a vote certify- ing that the closed session was legal.

In this instance, Mr. Casteen did just that, though he fumbled somewhat by not placing his comments in the record at the conclusion of the closed session.

The FOIA requirement is a very specific mandate designed to require public employees to discipline their own discussions during closed sessions. The public is well served by the requirement. It would not be served by a blood oath among elected officials that they will never, under any circumstances, violate the secrecy they enjoy in closed sessions. Such an agreement flies directly in the face of the law.

This "code of conduct" item could be made le- gally acceptable, of course, if it cited the FOIA requirement as an exception. But that would be unlikely to satisfy those who believe there's some- thing sacred in secrecy, even when the secret wasn't permitted by law in the first place.

Overall, the "Code of Conduct" is probably not that big of a deal, but then, the real evaluation of supervisors' conduct is not supposed to be made by their fellow supervisors. It's supposed to be judged by voters every four years.