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EDITORIAL: Closed meeting for ‘open’ discussion brings shame on Leesburg Council

New Mayor of Leesburg Kelly Burk supported the closed discussion. Times-Mirror File Photo


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.

Comments


Bluebook this is not an HR issue.  Public officials go through a very public process to be elected. This Council not only selected the person in private, they also denied the public a chance to vote in a new councilman/woman this spring.  Instead they claimed to want to save the tax payers money by holding the election in November when early spring was an option.


“Personnel” is universally defined as persons employed by (organization).  This situation was to appoint a person to fill the void of an elected official, making that person an “unelected” official, with the same capacity, responsibilities, duties, etc. as those who were actually elected to serve in this capacity.  Town Council are not “personnel”, they are elected officials. They are not “staff”.  They may receive a stipend and some reimbursements for the costs of doing the role of a Council person, but they are not personnel.

Bungled.


There is a difference between “confidential” and “secret.”  The closed session was, at its essence, a discussion about personnel, and personnel matters are almost always confidential, and should be.  If the process called for voting for the replacement council member, then everything would be open.  As it was delegated to the other council members to choose the new member, it is appropriate that the session was closed.
Blueboook


Makes one question Hugh Forsythe’s ethics as well.
A better man would have turned down the position under the circumstances. Instead he makes himself look as badly as the rest, excepting Tom Dunn.


Makes one wonder why we bother to vote any more. This is the second time in the past 14 months where a vacant seat was filled by someone who did not run for office. It seems to me that it would have been very easy for council to decide on a replacement for Mayor Kelly Burk—look to the defeated candidates who took the time to gather signatures, raise money and who actually ran for office and lost.  To discuss who to vote for behind closed doors boggles the mind.  And to “rub salt into the wound” we lost the services of a an experienced concerned council member who I had worked with in the past and was to represent Leesburg on the VML , Katie Hammler, who had the audacity to run as an Independent!!  Two things, the town needs to establish a policy to cover these types of situations in the future. The policy should take into consideration the wishes of the voters of the town so that we VOTERS are the ones who select who sits on council. We also should get rid of the myth that these elections are non-partisan. You can help this process by moving them back to May instead of November.
Tony Fasolo
VOTER


Are you trying to tell us that politicians lied to us just to get elected!!!!!

Say it ain’t so.

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