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VCOG: Surprise! We Just Spent Your Money

Discussing and approving new agenda items without notice blindsides the taxpaying public.

Surprises are great at birthday parties, but not at public meetings. Public meeting surprises are what some citizens receive when a new item is suddenly added to the agenda without warning. Discussion may or may not ensue, a vote is taken and boom, that’s it.

It’s even worse for the people who weren’t at the meeting, but who nonetheless may have been interested in the issue. They read it in the paper the next day and kick themselves for having missed the meeting. But they missed it, they note, because the announced agenda for the meeting did not include the item.

The addition of new items to an agenda without prior notice is a problem for citizens, and it’s one that many states limit (or prohibit) through statute. Some states say that a new item can be added to agenda only with 24 hours prior notice. Some states say that it takes a 2/3 vote of the board to approve an unannounced addition. And some states say a new item can only be added if there is an emergency.

Virginia is not one of any of those states. Virginia’s FOIA does not even require that there be an agenda at all. It only says that if there is an agenda, it has to be made available to the public at the same time as it’s given to the public body’s members.

When citizens see an agenda, they have a reasonable expectation that the board will be taking up the items on the agenda, and not taking up anything that’s not on the agenda. After all, the logic would go, the board members are preparing for the same agenda, and they wouldn’t be preparing for something that’s not on it, right?

Wrong.

Take the Hampton School Board in June 2010. The agenda stated that the meeting would adjourn after the board came out of the closed session. That session ran late and so many citizens and the media went home precisely because the agenda said there were no more items of business. Guess what happened? The board came out of closed session, and then agreed to discuss a new contract for the school attorney. They not only discussed it, they voted to approve it, even though there had been no prior notice of the contract, which included a 15% pay rise at a time when other government employee salaries were stagnant. The reporter and the public felt duped.

Or, sorry to pick on Hampton, but the City Council ran into a similar problem in November 2011. Then, without any prior notice on the agenda, the council approved looking into a proposal to give city employees gift cards to a particular outdoor shopping area. Again, the public was angry. Why had this item not been included with other year-end budget items? And was it appropriate for the council to be directing employees to shop at a particular set of shops within the city?

Or, take what happened just last week in Prince George County. It was late in the evening, and the public comment period had just ended. Earlier in the day, in closed session, the board had discussed buying a parcel of land that would adjoining a $1.5 million parcel approved days earlier, but it wasn’t on the agenda for the public meeting. Suddenly, according to the Progress Index, the board verbally added the purchase to the agenda and without comment or discussion approved purchase of the property for $239,000.

Surprise!

It works in the opposite direction, too.

I heard from a woman in Southwest Virginia last month and she was trying to mobilize fellow citizens to speak out on a particular item (I can’t remember what it was -- sorry). She wanted them to be able to come to the meeting, which was during work hours on a Friday, to either participate or at least observe the discussion. By Thursday, there was still no agenda. She called me, understandably worried that folks would take a day off from work to sit in on a meeting where the issue they cared about was never discussed.

The woman said she had some evidence that the town was intentionally delaying announcing the agenda because they didn’t want a lot of people there to oppose the measure. I don’t know whether that’s true, but it’s easy to see how citizens can feel like they are in a game of cat and mouse when it comes to knowing when and where their elected officials will be discussing items of vital importance to them.

I don’t want to tie the hands of a public body to the point that they can never stray from the agenda the day it’s announced. There are all kinds of reasons why items have to be added. But wherever possible, the time limit for when those items can be added should be proscribed. And where possible, go ahead and add the item for discussion, but don’t take action on it until the public knows it will be discussed.

So let’s keep surprises at public meetings to a minimum. Let’s give people plenty of notice so that they may participate, observe or, at the very least, have confidence that the issue was given the full and fair consideration it deserved. The public deserves that, too. And THAT is no surprise.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Megan Rhyne July 17, 2012 at 06:26 PM
On the issue of recording closed meetings, I just happened to have looked into this recently and here's what I found * most states do not require minutes of any sort to be kept of a closed meeting. * Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wyoming require minutes of closed session to be kept. * D.C. requires recording the minutes of closed sessions. * Some states, though I didn't go as far into detail here, will require the release of the minutes only if the government loses a lawsuit over the propriety of the closed session.
Jason Spencer July 17, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Maybe my stubbornness on this comes from working at newspapers in three of the seven states you listed :)
T-Bird July 17, 2012 at 07:03 PM
I agree with both of you to an extent. Certainly, public bodies should strive to comply with both the letter and spirit of the existing law. I would even say that if a practice (such as adding items in the closed session to the agenda) have been done in the past by others without incident, then that practice should be required as well. But as for the content of the closed session, I think it's good to record the session in the event of a lawsuit, and it should be provided if relevant to a case, but otherwise any recording should not be released. I think the board members need this forum to conduct sensitive business without fear that what they say will be used against them in a political attack. Politics gets in the way of good intentions far too often. Closed sessions allow for reason and good conscience to prevail.
Jason Spencer July 17, 2012 at 07:09 PM
I think we agree on the basic principles. In the past, areas I've covered weren't as affluent as Arlington, and much of the pressure for recording (and then later releasing) recordings of closed meetings centered on economic development deals — that is, sessions where the public body talked about huge sums of public money that would be offered as incentives to lure a company to a certain area. I'd be happy to have closed sessions recorded and end it there. We could have the debate on whether to release parts of those recordings later :)
Allie July 21, 2012 at 01:05 AM
Jason, your good buds on the Arlington County Board of Supervisors have been changing the County's 10 year Capital Improvement Plan for weeks after close of public comments...but no more public comments will be allowed at the County Board's June 21st meeting.

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