Who’s Allowed in Closed Sessions?

After a representative from the League of Women Voters was invited into a recent closed session of City Council, some have started to wonder how closed session should work. Councilor Maurice Cox felt that inviting in the representative was appropriate, given that they’re “a citizen watchdog group.” Asks outgoing Councilor David Toscano, “if you allow one community group in, why not allow other community groups in…?” Councilor Meredith Richards painted it as a consequence of having meetings that are not quite closed, yet not quite open. Jake Mooney has the story in today’s Progress.

4 Responses to “Who’s Allowed in Closed Sessions?”


  • By JAKE MOONEY

    Daily Progress staff writer

    When Charlottesville’s City Council and Councilor-elect Rob Schilling retreated into a closed session this week to interview seven candidates for the city School Board, a single member of the public was allowed to follow.

    The recipient of the special council invitation was Carol Hogg, co-president of the League of Women Voters, the lone organization granted access to an otherwise guarded process.

    The nonprofit, nonpartisan league’s inclusion, even as the council barred the media and failed to invite other potentially interested parties, led some council members and observers to question whether a meeting that typically is confidential in the city should be opened to select groups or even to the public in general.

    Councilor Maurice Cox, who hopes to take over as mayor when the new council term begins July 1, first proposed inviting the group Monday — the day before the interviews. Cox cast it as a move for greater resident involvement.

    “The League of Women Voters are a citizen watchdog group,” he said later. “They watch government and they are advocates for openness and transparency in local government, so I think it’s very appropriate that they might be allowed in to observe the proceedings.”

    The invitation, made at Monday’s City Council meeting, surprised Cox’s fellow councilors, and some raised questions of fairness.

    “I didn’t really understand the logic,” Councilor David J. Toscano said later, “because I think if you allow one community group in, why not allow other community groups in who have an interest in who the next School Board members might be?”

    That’s the problem with allowing access only to selected groups, said Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

    “How is that fair to the ones that aren’t on the privileged list, and why aren’t all citizens able to participate?” he said. “Where are the teachers? Where are the PTAs? Where are the taxpayer groups? Everybody ought to have a say in it.”

    Cox said it’s understandable to question why only the league was invited this year, but stood by the invitation.

    “I’m sorry that I can’t be incredibly consistent here,” he said, “but we’re testing ideas of how to open up a process and share the content with more of the public.”

    He originally had proposed allowing representatives of the city PTO board into the proceedings, but backed off the idea when Councilor Meredith Richards pointed out that two of the candidates are members of the board.

    What bothered Richards, she said Tuesday, was the improvised, last-minute nature of the invitations. She wants the council to develop a policy for whom it invites to closed meetings.

    Richards said the league occupies “a special place on the civic landscape as a nonpartisan group who monitor public processes.” Still, she said, “I can’t think of any rational basis” for including the group while excluding all other members of the public and news media.

    Middle of the road

    “It seems to be halfway between public and private, halfway between a closed meeting and a public meeting, and that’s a problem,” Richards said.

    To Landon, of the open government coalition, the solution is simple: conduct the interviews in public, before anyone who wants to watch. Many other Virginia localities already do that, he said.

    In Charlottesville, the interviews traditionally have been closed to the public, in the belief that candidates feel more comfortable to speak freely about personal matters without an audience present. Candidates are sometimes asked about children’s attendance at private schools.

    The process changed last year after city government failed to schedule a public forum for the two women seeking to fill one board seat. To compensate, the council invited the league, the PTO board and the Public Housing Association of Residents to send observers to the interviews. The first two groups obliged.

    Behind closed doors

    The move was legal, the city’s attorney said, because of a provision in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act that permits selected members of the public to attend closed meetings “if such persons are deemed necessary or if their presence will reasonably aid the public body in its consideration of a topic.”

    While Landon believes allowing selected groups into a meeting is better than closing it completely, he still prefers total openness, dismissing the argument that closed meetings allow board candidates to speak more freely.

    “It may be true in some cases,” said Landon, a longtime former Roanoke Times editor. “Some people may not be willing to be candid when it’s in the open. But then what the heck are they doing seeking positions in government?”

    “People should be willing to state publicly what they think,” Landon added, “and the City Council members should be willing publicly to do the questioning, because then it shows what are the priorities of the council members.”

    Cox, who twice has won election to the council on platforms that included open government, said the interview process is becoming more public every year. Allowing anyone to attend the proceedings is the next logical step, and one that the council may take someday, he said.

    Still, he added, “we’re not at that place yet.”

    Councilor-elect Schilling argued Tuesday, though, that the council shouldn’t go halfway.

    “My thought is that either you open it up to everybody or you close it to everybody,” said Schilling, a proponent of elected school boards. “To just say we’re having … people from the league, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, because you’re just opening it up to a very narrow cross-section of people.”

    Because Tuesday’s meeting was closed, it is impossible to know what role the non-councilors played, though candidates exiting the meeting said Hogg and Schilling had not asked questions. The two remained in the closed meeting room with the council for several minutes after the last candidate left.

    Silent observer

    Just before the meeting, Hogg said the league has strict rules that prohibit members who observe such proceedings from participating. “If you’re asked a question, you may answer it,” Hogg said, “but if you are there as an observer that’s what you’re doing: observing.”

    In arguing for league members’ presence, though, Cox suggested that they do quite a bit more. At Monday’s council meeting, he said the observers were so helpful during last year’s selection process that they may have influenced the council’s choices.

    Tuesday, he elaborated: “I respected the people who were there,” he said, “and we allowed them to at least tell us their impressions before they left the room for our discussions … and it was very insightful.”

    Hogg, who didn’t attend last year’s meeting, cast doubt on Cox’s characterization of the observers’ role. “It would surprise me very much if it was league members that were there representing the league,” she said.

    Though the league’s stated mission includes encouraging “informed and active participation of citizens in government,” Hogg said she wouldn’t consider it a problem if all other groups were barred from the interview process.

    “I would consider it an honor,” she said, “and I would also consider that it was a reflection of the way that the League of Women Voters has conducted itself over the years.”

  • “I’m sorry that I can’t be incredibly consistent here,” he said, “but we’re testing ideas of how to open up a process and share the content with more of the public.”

    Is it just me? Or is this a total no-brainer? If you desire transparency in the proceedings, you open a gallery that people can come in and sit and watch. Heck, if you don’t like heavy-breathers, put a CC TV in the room and pipe it to where ever you want.

    My question is why is this process closed in the first place?

  • What we have here are councilors who want it THEIR WAY, while seemingly doing what they think the public wants. Entitlement and ego…

  • or is it possible the favored group is democratic by birth?

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