Strong words on operating in the sunlight,0,980934.story#

Editorial: No backroom antics

It sometimes seems that local public agencies go needlessly out of their way to keep their citizens in the dark.

When the Daily Press recently asked how much public money was spent on President Barack Obama's latest visit to Hampton, there's nothing that would have precluded them from simply providing us those records.

But instead, the City of Hampton and the Virginia State Police are making the newspaper jump through hoops, requiring us to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get the information.

Why does Hampton's City Council, and other boards, commissions and trustees overseeing numerous other public agencies, allow this kind of thing to happen?

Serving on a board is not about being liked. It's a public trust, providing oversight of the entity in question and making sure it runs properly. The job is about asking questions, getting details, and demanding straight answers from the agency's staff on everything from budgets to personnel.

But just as important, it's about making sure that the agency under the board's responsibility operates in a transparent and accessible fashion. This means setting a clear tone that the board expects its staff, from the top down, to treat open records as just that.

It's up to the boards — the elected and appointed fiduciaries ultimately in charge of the agency — to ensure that then agency's departments, from the police to the economic development staff to the sanitation department, act as the public entities they are.

And aside from ensuring that the agency operates in the open, a board itself must operate in the light, too.

But that doesn't always happen.

When the Newport News School Board recently voted in a 10 percent hike in the base pay for Superintendent Ashby Kilgore, transparency wasn't high on their list of concerns.

Why else would the board not even bother to tell the public — with an item on the meeting's agenda — that they were planning to vote on Kilgore's contract? The vote, which brought Kilgore's base pay to $205,000, was voted on after most people went home.

The School Board — these supposed public stewards — did not ensure that the vote on the Kilgore contract ended up on the public agenda, though they surely knew it was coming.

The board needs to make sure that discussions at board meetings that are required to be open under law must, in fact, be open. Agenda items that might make someone squirm — hello, Ashby Kilgore — shouldn't be left off the public agenda.

Agenda items need to be clear, not vaguely worded in order to cloud public understanding. Matters of public import — such as real estate deals or legal settlements — shouldn't be voted on as part of a "consent agenda," a catch-all vote designed for matters that are not expected to get much opposition.

It wasn't long ago that the city of Newport News settled a lawsuit by the families of two boys sexually assaulted at the city's juvenile detention center. We didn't ask for the names of the sexual abuse victims, but wanted the amount that taxpayers paid to settle the suit.

But the city said it couldn't reveal any information because a federal judge had sealed the settlement, including the amount paid. But who asked that judge to seal that settlement, you ask? Why, the City of Newport News did, along with the plaintiff.

The City Council — with no policy barring them from accepting a sealed settlement — said they agreed to the settlement because a city lawyer told them they should. (It was apparently lost on them that the city lawyers work for them, not the other way around).

One deceptive tactic that we've heard about is that the boards will assent to something in closed session — but not actually vote. There might be some nodding of heads, an indication of yay or nay, on this legal settlement or that land deal. But a public, recorded vote is never taken.

This is a clear violation of the open meetings law, and board members should not allow it to happen. Any board "action" requires a public vote. And because the board answers directly to the people, it's their responsibility, more than anyone else's, to ensure that the public's work is done in public.