How Much Local Government Business Should Go On Behind Closed Doors?

Jun 1, 2018

A legal fight over public access to local government is raising new questions about Virginia’s Freedom of Information law.

A lawsuit in Rappahannock County is raising new questions about how much public business should be conducted in secret. At issue is the Board of Supervisors’ decision to replace an outgoing county attorney.

Megan Rhyne at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government says local governments often choose to exempt these kinds of discussions from the public even when it’s not necessary.

“Exemptions are discretionary, and that’s true in the meetings setting as well. So public bodies do not have to — they are not required to — meet in closed session to discuss personnel matters. They choose to.”

Virginia legal expert Rich Kelsey says local governments should not be looking to shoehorn anything they can into the public records exemptions. He says they should be looking to use them as narrowly as possible.

“And if public bodies do that one they’ll gain more confidence from the people and two they’ll have fewer fights over what it is they’re trying to keep secret from the people they represent.”

The case has been bogged down in process — whether the complaint was filed the right way. So far, the courts have yet to weigh in on the merits of the case; how much of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors public business should be conducted behind closed doors?

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.