Friday, November 11, 2011

FOIA: When a little information means a lot

It is an understatement to say to citizens “get involved early – very, very early. Don’t wait for a public hearing at a city council meeting to object to an issue on a  rezoning, chickens or anything else.

What is early?

Work sessions are where it begins. Council briefings work the same way but this topic is specifically about Planning Commission work sessions. At work sessions you get a front row seat to personalities, biases and a direction they are contemplating. You will also get a sense of what the Planning Department shares with the commission (and what they don’t). This is particularly true when it comes to relaying input meeting comments and the perception they have of you. It is often times not flattering.

Let me start at the beginning which is how you tell a story – to hell with the “inverted pyramid” for my “serious” journalist friends who point out with smugness that I am “not a serious reporter/journalist.”

A case in point – it became impossible to know when the Planning Commission was going to discuss the Countryside property following formation of the Master Plan. If it had not been for one member alerting me of the agenda item in advance there was no way to know.

I also became aware that though I had signed up for all public meeting announcements on “myroanoke” I had received none for Planning Commission Meetings, school board meetings, and several others. “Myroanoke” is a place a citizen can sign up to receive any selected notice.

To do this – go to the city’s website at and look to the right. Just enter your email address and select the notices you want to receive.

Lately topics at the Planning Commission work sessions have become important to our neighborhood. I realized that since they were public meetings they should be advertised rather then relying on a member to alert me.

With that thought in mind and assuming other citizens would want to know what is being discussed at Planning Commission work sessions I asked Megan Rhyne director at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government about this. She confirmed it in an email saying, “… regardless of whether they are called meetings, work sessions, retreats or whatever – [they] are subject to FOIA’s public meetings requirements. They are required to post notice in the same manner than all other meetings…”

I received today the Planning Commission meeting alert with a link to the agenda and minutes by way of “myroanoke.” Chris Chittum Planning Department administrator advised that Planning Commission work session agendas would be handled the same way.

At the last Planning Commission work session Evans Spring and Countryside were discussed. It would have been advantageous for residents in the Valley View interchange property to have known about the discussion and have a representative there.

According to Chittum, “Countryside and Evans Spring will both be recurring items for the next few months” at Planning Commission work sessions. Good to know – I hope a representative from the Evans Spring neighborhood(s) will be there.

Planning Commission work sessions occur on the first Friday of the month at noon in the EOC. Planning Commission Meetings are the third Thursday of the month in council chambers at 1:30 p.m.

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Commentary, Community

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Comments (1)

Jack Mcguire

November 12th, 2011 at 5:57 PM    

Great info!

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