EDITORIAL: Closed meeting for ‘open’ discussion brings shame on Leesburg Council
Just a couple months ago, the candidates for Leesburg Town Council asked the voters of Leesburg to trust them with their votes. In return, they pledged to bring transparency and new leadership to a dysfunctional, political council that masquerades as nonpartisan.
Faced with its first tricky decision -- the naming of an interim Town Council member -- the newly elected council defaulted to a tactic employed by other disingenuous elected officials in Loudoun County: It closed the doors on the public so it could “openly” discuss the matter.
Listen to newcomer Ron Campbell, elected to Town Council in November: “There was … consideration about going into closed session, which allows us to have some open and honest conversation – not to hide things from the public – but among ourselves the considerations that might allow a swing vote.”
Or Kelly Burk, the new mayor of Virginia's largest town: "Closed sessions are not backroom deals. They are discussions that protect the honesty of the process."
Closing the doors for open conversation. Closed sessions … “that protect the honesty of the process." The logic is as twisted as it is perverse.
Trust betrayed, the new council now defines itself with arrogance and ignominy. It can’t be trusted to handle Leesburg’s business when it can’t even find a way to talk in public about naming a new member.
Council members Tom Dunn and Ken Reid voted against taking the debate behind closed doors. Dunn even opted not to partake in the closed session, while Reid, despite his vote, engaged in whatever took place back there.
“I try to avoid closed sessions at all costs,” Dunn said. “If we can't openly discuss five people in front of those cameras and these few people sitting out here tonight ... I don't know what we've got to hide.”
“Hide” is the operative word. It's the only rational explanation for Town Council’s bad judgment and self-serving explanation. In making a mockery of the open meeting provisions of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, council members retreated behind closed doors to reach a decision they were unable to make in public. In the public vote following its closed meeting, they unanimously appointed Hugh Forsythe to the seat left open after Burk's promotion to mayor.
Denied an open process, there is no way for citizens to know what caused Burk, Campbell and Marty Martinez to change their votes and approve Forsythe. We are left to speculate about secret handshakes and political gamesmanship.
The process is a disservice to Forsythe, a retired Air Force major general and board member of Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers. His appointment is now tainted by the latest mishandling of a vacancy on Town Council. Forsythe has to be wondering about public service on a council that doesn’t quite understand the concept.
So how did Town Council members justify secret discussions behind closed doors? They cited a discretionary exemption to FOIA authorizing closed meetings for “certain limited purposes.” While it may be legal for a local governing bodies such as Town Council to find a way to skirt open meetings laws, a larger question confronts them: Should they?
That is a question about leadership, integrity and intention -- the qualities that differentiate responsible public servants from a cabal.
A law to prohibit secret meetings of official bodies, save under the most exceptional circumstances, should not be necessary. But maybe it is. Public officers above all other persons should be imbued with the truth that their business is the public’s business, and they should be the last to tolerate any attempt to keep the people from being fully informed as to what is going on in official agencies.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Instances are many in which local officials have contrived, deliberately and shamefully, to operate in a vacuum of secrecy.
Delay, frustration, inconvenience, embarrassment and even speculation as to the probability of a desired outcome are insufficient reasons to close a public meeting. Leesburg’s citizens have the right to hear debate, all of it, that informs the decisions about who represents them. That seems patently obvious in the most basic of representative democracies known as town government.
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