The Board of Supervisors gets docked a few points this week for muddy government with its recent move to restrict access to two of the county's heavily trafficked public libraries in order to use those facilities for county workers' childcare amid the pandemic.
Whether this service benefits some members of the public or serves a significant community need isn't the question here. The question is one of process and good governance, meaning a government that acts after receiving feedback and dialoguing from the public.
Supervisors took the library childcare action without any input from the general public. How do we know that? Because there's no possible way the public at large could've known this was coming. There was no public notification, no mention this specific proposal was even being considered.
Adding insult to injury, Loudoun's supervisors signed off on the initiative during their August recess, when they don't have public business meetings and there aren't discussion items available for public review. They apparently put the plan in motion via an email “straw vote.”
We do not – we cannot – condone government by inbox.
Sticking with the digital chit-chat theme, the restrictions were announced in a weekend press release during said recess.
(This is a good time to suggest the board do away with the long-standing practice of an August recess. Loudoun is no longer a county of 100,000 people where essential government business from elected officials can wait. Agendas for the average meeting continue to grow with each year, and a recess leads to “straw votes” by email. And, well, here we are.
Of course, this Board of Supervisors was also awarded a significant pay raise. Perhaps more money should mean a little more work – especially when the money comes from the taxpayers?)
That Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) appeared puzzled by the public's exasperation to this move is disconcerting. Rather than acknowledging the initiative could've been handled differently – with more public input, or any public input at all, really – Randall came off as defensive. During this week's first-in-September business meeting, Randall read off a timeline of how the plan came together. Missing from that timeline (obviously and for emphasis), was any feedback from the public on the library restrictions.
Loudoun's greater citizenry only had a chance to weigh in on the matter after the decision was made.
And weigh in they did.
“Your decision to close the Rust Library and Ashburn Library disgusts me. Your attorney's letter stating that as the board of supervisors you 'own' the libraries is Orwellian, like your decision,” Leesburg resident Mary Martha Aubry wrote to the board. “ … The decision was made in a completely undemocratic fashion. There should have been public debate about this question, an opportunity for constituents to weigh in with their representatives.”
“I really thought libraries could be alternative places for children to do school if they lacked appropriate space in their homes or simply needed to get out,” Vicky Chrisner said on Facebook. “This is very disappointing.”
Sondy Eklund, who identifies herself as a former library employee, noted, “Library facilities weren't built to provide childcare, and it's a poor use of resources – and unsafe to use them that way. Also, you can't guarantee the library materials from that branch all got quarantined after being touched.”
These are all viewpoints that weren't given any weight prior to the board's governance by send button.
We know it's a busy, chaotic time. We accept there are decisions and problems coming before our elected officials no one saw coming, and we appreciate that.
But we don't appreciate learning about half-baked policies that impact thousands of Loudouners' lives after the fact. That's something we refuse to accept.