EDITORIAL: The courage to think out loud
Town and county officials weren’t talking, except to say they weren’t talking. They signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), agreeing to keep the name of the company a secret.
County Supervisor Ken Reid, who represents the Leesburg District, lauded the action. “Despite community opposition, the Leesburg Town Council … stepped up to the plate and did the right thing by approving the proposed Oaklawn rezoning.”
Here’s the question: How do we know?
The Leesburg proceedings left residents in the dark. By signing NDAs, county officials complied with acts of governance aimed at hiding, rather than informing, an official decision impacting the property of residents.
“It is unfortunate that the identity of the firm could not have been disclosed earlier to give some ease of mind to the Oaklawn and Stratford communities nearby,” Reid said in a statement.
Ease of mind? Not really. Oaklawn and Stratford residents are feeling deceived. Even some residents who did not oppose the rezoning feel that elected officials kept them in the dark about a decision that should have been made publicly.
There is nothing unprecedented about the way the Oaklawn rezoning was handled, according to Town of Leesburg spokeswoman Betsy Fields. The town routinely keeps the names of economic development prospects anonymous, she said.
All residents should be concerned about decisions made with anonymity. Regardless of the benefits of the deal, or the stellar reputation of a company seeking approval for their plans, the public process should provide full disclosure to citizens who are impacted. That’s why we have planning commissions, zoning boards, hearings and public votes.
The problem with secrets is that they raise suspicion. While we recognize the need for private discussions on some economic development opportunities, we must hold civic discourse and public accountability as more important values.
That’s why we sought to disclose the identity of the anonymous company seeking zoning approval to build its corporate headquarters at Oaklawn.
It did not take much to uncover the anonymous applicant. We checked public records then confirmed with sources who had been briefed.
Non-disclosures for public decisions should be non-starters. We should be concerned when overly cautious or just plain secretive public officials seek to exclude citizens from the process of governing.
Most elected officials agree. Indeed, our disclosure about the name of the mystery company seeking a zoning change was confirmed by county officials who signed NDAs.
Now, Leesburg Town Council member Tom Dunn proposes limitations on NDAs and closed sessions. Dunn contends these practices limit public input and have resulted in a questionable hiring process for town manager, set unfavorable water rates for Leesburg, invited lawsuits and created weak negotiations over land.
Dunn, who is running for mayor, suggests that NDAs should be discouraged and that elected officials provide justification and accountability as part of the process to consider them.
Additionally, closed meetings should occur less frequently in Leesburg, Dunn contends. These sessions deny input for the public and provide cover for elected officials, he says.
Rapid growth and economic development are big issues of life in the nation’s fastest growing county. We should have the courage to think out loud about they affect our community.
That begins with trust. By electing fellow citizens to public office, we grant a measure of trust to act in our best interests. Our elected officials should trust us, too, by ensuring that we’re informed about the issues that matter. That’s called government by the people, for the people. Sometimes it needs a little help.
Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act was passed to ensure that public business takes place in front of the public. There are exceptions, including personnel discussions, consultation with legal counsel and discussion of pending economic development opportunities.
These topics sometimes belong behind closed doors. But trying to hash out the latest zoning case outside of the public’s watchful eye neither serves the community’s interest, nor advances economic progress.