Secrecy breeds distrust

Published 8:00 am Saturday, January 17, 2009

The most refreshing change in Franklin city government over the past six months has been the City Council’s emphasis on openness, transparency and accessibility.

That collective spirit has begun to restore the broken trust between citizens and City Hall that manifest itself in the May election, when two newcomers running on a platform of greater citizen involvement scored runaway victories.

The City Council’s challenge now is to demonstrate that openness is an ongoing commitment, not an election-year show.

A couple of current hot potatoes in city government — a botched school board appointment and the retroactive billing of electricity customers because of a city employee’s clerical mistake — illustrate how easy it is to revert to old habits and retreat to secrecy when the political environment heats up.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act is vague enough to give elected officials cover when they find the spotlight of public scrutiny uncomfortable. A creative mind can take the list of exceptions to the open-meetings law and justify doing just about anything behind closed doors.

City Attorney Taylor Williams, to his credit, is a stickler about steering the council clear of obvious violations of the law. With the job of determining whether council members have the right to go into closed session in Williams’ capable hands, it’s important to note that the council alone must decide whether excluding the citizenry from deliberations is the right decision and whether the council will erode the public trust by choosing secrecy. The latter is the job of elected leadership, not an attorney. Under no circumstance does the FOI law require a closed-door meeting. The law simply says a board “may” meet in secret under certain circumstances.

On the aforementioned controversies, the council blew it Monday night by choosing secrecy over openness.

In the case of the electricity back-billing, the City Council has made a mountain out of a molehill by hiding behind its staff and failing to either (a) engage the affected customers who have requested dialog with their elected leadership or (b) take ownership of the decision, in a troubled economy, to collect 2½-year-old electricity charges from 55 churches and businesses, including this newspaper, that were unknowingly underbilled at the time of usage.

Councilman Mark Fetherolf navely proclaimed after Monday night’s closed-door discussion of the matter that the council had “put some finality” to the issue. How?

To the contrary, the council ratcheted up the controversy another notch by running for cover on straightforward questions like: How does the city plan to spend this unbudgeted windfall? Why not donate the money back to the affected churches so they can minister to the needy in a time of soaring joblessness in Franklin? What’s being done to prevent future billing errors? Those are questions to be answered by elected leaders, not staff.

On its agenda, the City Council cited “consultation with the City Attorney regarding specific legal matters requiring the provision of legal advice” as its justification for excluding the taxpayers from the electricity discussion.

For the record, it’s the city and the city alone that has chosen to make the electricity back-billing a “legal matter.” I’ve attended two meetings of affected customers and have yet to hear anyone say they plan to sue the city. A legal fight almost certainly would cost the customers more than the amount of the back bills. Rather, we talked at length about ways to engage the city in dialog about a political solution that would be win-win for the city and for Franklin Power & Light customers. We continue to seek that solution, even as the City Council, collectively if not individually, hides from us.

The council committed another major gaffe Monday night by hashing out behind closed doors the procedure it will use to fill a critically important vacancy on the school board. In open session, the city attorney presented the council with three procedural options, but the council retreated to secrecy to discuss which option to use. Why?

The council can make up for that mistake, rededicate itself to the principles of openness and do the city schools and the citizenry a huge favor by interviewing nominees for the school board in open session. The city’s schools are at a critical crossroads. Any interested citizen should be able to hear what qualifications a candidate possesses for school board service, the candidate’s philosophy on public education, and his or her plans to make the schools better.

On narrow topics — such as allegations of past misconduct — that might be harmful to a candidate’s reputation, the council can exercise its right to enter closed session. But let the sun shine on the rest of the interview.

City government has made some big strides toward openness and accountability since last summer. Now it must avoid the proverbial three steps back.