Monday, July 12, 2010

What’s that Closed Meeting Thing All About?

Freedom of Information Act

Freedom of Information Act


MONDAY UPDATE: Roanoke County’s Tuesday, July 13 agenda properly names subject:

1. Section 2.2-3711(A)(1): Personnel, namely discussion concerning appoint-ment to the Roanoke Valley – Alleghany Regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) Committee

2. Section 2.2-3711(A)(5): Discussion concerning the expansion of an existing business or industry where no previous announcement has been made of the business’ or industry’s interest in locating or expanding its facilities in the community.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ever wondered what goes on behind those closed doors? Why and when a public body (council, board or commission) can discuss public matters you may never know about.

Yes, a public body can discuss personnel issues, legal issues, or negotiations for disposition or purchase of public property. It is not a law. Repeating – it is not a law. The public body can divulge as much as they want to the public and they should according Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. Err on the side of disclosure not on the side of secrecy.

Some time back in October of 2007 I had a back and forth with Roanoke city attorney William Hackworth. Well, we had many back and forth when I was using FOI requests to obtain information about the Countryside Golf Course purchase. What an eye-opener that was.

After the city purchased the golf course our neighborhood was kept guessing on when the golf course was being discussed behind closed doors. This led to a read of the FOIA exemptions and the specific wording when declaring a closed session. Disclosure of the subject is one of the requirements. It has been forever lacking on Roanoke city’s council agenda.

The lack of a subject  led me to ask the FOI Advisory Board staff attorney, Alan Gernhardt his opinion. Gernhardt said that the “subject” of the closed meeting should be clearly stated. Roanoke City attorney, Hackworth said in an email “I respectfully disagree with Mr. Gernhardt.”

Unless anyone wants to go to court about it we are left with vague disclosures on Roanoke City Agendas as in the examples below:

  • A communication from the City Manager requesting that Council convene in a Closed Meeting to discuss the disposition of publicly-owned property, where discussion in open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body, pursuant to Section 2.2-371 1 (A)(3), Code of Virginia (1 950), as amended.
  • A communication, from the City Manager requesting that Council convene in a Closed Meeting to discuss of the award of a public contract involving the expenditure of public funds, and to discuss of the terms or scope of such contract, where discussion in an open session would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body, pursuant to Section 2.2-371 1 (A)(29), Code of Virginia (1 950), as amended.

In contrast you have Roanoke County’s agenda stating clearly the subject of their closed sessions (see below). If stating the subject has not harmed the county all these years then why does the city fear disclosing the subject of  closed meetings. This was a campaign issue in the last municipal election. How soon they and we forget.

Roanoke County states the subject:

  1. Sec. 2.2-3711.A.3. Discussion or consideration of the acquisition of real property for a public purpose, namely, for a law enforcement training academy, where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the Board of Supervisors.
  2. Section 2.2-3711.A.7. Consultation with legal counsel and briefings by staff regarding specific legal matters, namely Slate Hill Development, requiring the provision of legal advice by such counsel.

When citing the closed meeting using a FOI exemption, the wording must contain the following:

  • No closed meeting shall be held unless the public body proposing to convene such meeting has taken an affirmative recorded vote in an open meeting approving a motion that (i) identifies the subject matter, (ii) states the purpose of the meeting and (iii) makes specific reference to the applicable exemption from open meeting requirements provided in § 2.2-3707 or subsection A of § 2.2-3711. The matters contained in such motion shall be set forth in detail in the minutes of the open meeting. A general reference to the provisions of this chapter, the authorized exemptions from open meeting requirements, or the subject matter of the closed meeting shall not be sufficient to satisfy the requirements for holding a closed meeting.

Who can change the city’s lack of disclosure – the citizens and the media need to beat it, beat it, and beat it some more until that horse is dead.

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Commentary, Politics, Roanoke City Politics, Roanoke County Politics

Tags: , , ,

Comments (3)

[…] This is a perfect example of where the “subject” of a closed session should be clearly identified on the agenda. RELATED ARTICLE: What’s that Closed Meeting Thing All About? […]


July 12th, 2010 at 12:35 PM    

I actually have a little different take on this. I worked for a city government in Michigan where we did disclose the subject of closed meeting, and we had an instance where we lost a possible business relocation because of it.

I support keeping the closed meetings as general as possible. You can’t pick and choose which ones to provide subjects for so in my experience I would always encourage local governments to avoid disclosing any subject if it is allowed by law. We elect people to use their best judgement and if there is any possibility that disclosure would hurt the locality’s position then always err on the side of being general.

Thanks for the forum.


July 12th, 2010 at 3:10 PM    

I would think the business name would not be disclosed. The subject would just say “to discuss a possible business relocation.”

Different states have different FOIA laws. Michigan is probably different or the government decided to disclose it anyway (which is not against the law). That was their mistake in the case you describe.

Interesting case.

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