Your Right to Know: Elected leaders often discuss public business behind closed doors

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RICHMOND, Va. (WDBJ7) In our democratic society, government decisions are made in open view. Elected bodies cast votes in public, but often times the discussions leading up to those choices take place in private.

Search the agenda for school board, city council, and board of supervisor meetings in our region and you'll often see the words "closed session." Virginia law allows public bodies to hold meetings behind closed doors for a limited number of reasons.

When that privilege is invoked, everything is off the record. No minutes are taken and nothing is recorded, which means there's little accountability to prove those private conversations are appropriate under the law.

"A lot of our public bodies go into closed meetings to talk about things that are not really appropriate subjects for closed meetings," said State Senator Scott Surovell (D - Fairfax).

Closed sessions are allowed for discussions about things like hiring or firing an employee and considering the sale or purchase of real estate.

There are about 51 provisions under the current law, giving elected leaders wide flexibility to hold meetings in private. Still, most conversations are supposed to happen in public, and that doesn't always happen.

"There are probably two or three closed meeting violations per month," said Surovell. an advocate for the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA, a law that's supposed to give the public a way to obtain government records and hold their leaders accountable.

Discussions that happen during closed meetings are exempt from FOIA, giving the public no way of finding out what their elected representatives might be considering on their behalf.

"I think a lot of times public bodies go into closed meeting and during the meeting they start talking about things that weren't part of the original reason to go into closed meeting," said Surovell.

"If you're using it right, you're allowed to talk confidentially," said Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Rhyne said there are many legitimate reasons why elected leaders need to talk about public matters confidentially, but she thinks the law's intended purpose is sometimes misinterpreted. She witnessed a recent case where the Richmond School Board went into closed session to talk about its budget.

"Their explanation is that they are talking about personnel," Rhyne said. "If you're talking about personnel generally, that's not appropriate to talk about in a closed meeting."

Rhyne said Richmond school leaders have claimed they're using names of specific employees in their closed meetings, which would make their private discussions permissible under the law.

"Our position is that you need to a better job of separating those out," said Rhyne. "Go ahead and talk generally and then go behind closed doors to talk about the specifics."

"There are a lot of sins of omission out there in local government, and there are sins of commission," said Billy Coleburn, a journalist in Blackstone, Virginia and also happens to serve as his town's mayor. As someone who wears both hats, he often has to remind his colleagues on town council of the law that governs how and when they talk.

"Once you and a colleague are talking and colleague number three comes in there, it's got to be about sports, kids, or weather - or break up," Coleburn said.

While some closed meeting violations are accidental, Coleburn believes some elected leaders are violating the law deliberately.

"It's deceit. It's dishonest," said Coleburn. "These people in government, even the rookie politicians, they know what's right and what's wrong."

In this year's General Assembly session, lawmakers passed legislation to impose a $1,000 fine for any governing body in Virginia that violates the closed meeting rules. The bill was introduced by Surovell.

"I think if we create consequences for violating the rule, I think county attorneys, city attorneys will be more likely to say hold on a second," Surovell said.

Surovell's legislation also imposes a $100 penalty for individuals who destroy government records in an attempt to avoid a FOIA request. He and other FOIA advocates say adding more accountability to open records laws will lead to more transparency.

"You're not going to change behavior until you put fear of violating (into the law). You need more fear among employees and public officials," said Coleburn.