“Public” meetings and a Town that still just doesn’t get it, 3/13/2019, updated 3/14/2019

This evening, I went to Town Hall to attend and record the 5:30 PM meeting of the “Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) Design Guidelines Working Group“.  I am fairly sure this constitutes an open public meeting, under the definitions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. And it was, in fact, announced on the Town Calendar.

You can see the time and location posted here, 3rd item on the list.

Now, just what is the “Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) Design Guidelines Working Group“?  I have no idea, because today (March 13) is the first time that phrase ever appears on the Town’s calendar, or on a Town web page.  (Search “Design Guidelines Working Group” to see that the only other entry is a set of cryptic references to this group as the source of changes in a February 2019 draft of the MAC design guidelines.  So, whoever they are, they are definitely directing Town policy with regard to this aspect of MAC zoning.  That is, they are engaged in public business.  And have been doing so for some time.)

In any case, whatever they do sure looks relevant to MAC.  And this gathering of the “Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) Design Guidelines Working Group” appears to meet the definition of an open public meeting.  By law, all meetings of public bodies in the Commonwealth are open public meetings unless you have a very good reason for them not to be, as spelled out in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

So, naively, my wife and I trundled down to Town Hall this evening, to listen to “Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) Design Guidelines Working Group and figure out what they are doing.  And report it back here, so anybody who cared to know, could know.

And, as it turns out, the only way I could have sat in on and recorded that meeting was literally by sitting at the conference table with them. Because, even thought Town Council meeting room was open and lit (in anticipation for the 7:00 meeting of the Planning Commission), and this was (per above) supposed to be held there, this meeting was held in the Town’s little conference room.  Which consists of small room with a conference table for about 10 people.  And nothing else.  No room for the public to observe.

So I poked my head in, verified that this was the meeting of the “Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) Design Guidelines Working Group“, said, in so many words, well, to heck with this, and left.   There was literally no room for anyone from the public to observe the meeting.

Maybe that’s legal.  I would guess it’s not.  I would guess that having a open public meeting (by the legal definition) but having no place for the public is illegal.  And for that matter, the February MAC guidelines document shows that this same committee must have met, in private, with no announcement and no public access.  So this committee of appointed officials has been doing the public’s business, in private, for some time now.  I guess I should applaud that the Town at least bothered to post the date and time this time.  Even if they made it impossible to observe the meeting.

This is Town of Vienna government, in a nutshell.  The last thing they worry about is the public.  I guess that’s a natural consequence of a string of uncontested elections.  But this “public meeting with no place for the public” goes hand-in-hand with many other aspects of how Town of Vienna government runs.  This goes right along with waiting two months to post video of Town Council meetings.   (They only stopped doing that a couple of weeks ago.)  Goes right along with taking three or four months to post minutes of prior meeting.   Goes right along with making recordings of Town Council and Planning Commission work sessions — but not bothering to post them for public access.  (Again, they only stopped that a couple of weeks ago.  Just a short time after I decided to record and post every meeting.)  Oh, and cancelling a meeting, on their website, after the meeting was supposed to be held, in the chaos that surrounded the re-start of the MAC parade.

So, just to be clear:  Dear Town of Vienna, VA:  If you have a group of appointed officials meeting to undertake the Town’s business, by law, that must be an open public meeting, unless there is some compelling reason for such meeting to be closed.  As such, you have to have somewhere for the public to sit and observe.  You can’t hold an open public meeting in a room that excludes the public.  Seems pretty obvious to me, but I guess it needs to be said explicitly.

Just FYI, here’s what Virginia law says, emphasis mine:

“Public body” means any legislative body, authority, board, bureau, commission, district or agency …  and (ii) any committee, subcommittee, or other entity however designated, of the public body created to perform delegated functions of the public body or to advise the public body. ”

“Meeting” or “meetings” means the meetings including work sessions …of (i) as many as three members or (ii) a quorum, if less than three, of the constituent membership, wherever held, with or without minutes being taken, whether or not votes are cast, of any public body. “

B. By enacting this chapter, the General Assembly ensures the people of the Commonwealth … free entry to meetings of public bodies wherein the business of the people is being conducted. The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy …  All public records and meetings shall be presumed open, unless an exemption is properly invoked.”

In a nutshell, no wiggle room that I see.  This is a public body.  That was a meeting.  All meeting shall be open.  I don’t think that meeting in a room that excludes the public meets the definition of an open meeting.  And for sure, whatever meetings they had before this — unannounced, with no opportunity for the public to observe — they were not open meetings either.

People keep asking my why I don’t trust my Town government.  And I have provided numerous reasons, in the context of MAC.  And now this.  And the question that really needs to be asked is not why I don’t trust them, but why you do.

And now I’m off to record this evening’s Planning Commission session.  I’ll post that here tomorrow.