Open government is what’s best for the people

Published 9:23 am Wednesday, March 16, 2011

by Herb DeGroft

It’s cause for citizen concern when local government goes behind closed doors to discuss a subject that does not require doing so.

It’s even more troubling when the subject has to do with minimizing the contact between an elected official and local government employees.

Every elected official has an obligation to visit with those employed by the government entity to ascertain employee morale, as a minimum. If other items surface as a result, so be it. Efficiency of our government, especially at the local level, is of paramount importance.

Public officials should be able to face the public (their constituents) whenever; not wanting to do so indicates you are in the wrong job as a “public” official, in my opinion.

Going into a closed meeting by a government body is a serious consideration, often taken lightly by some elected officials, as I have periodically experienced over the last 16 years.

A motion to do so is required, and the reason for it has to be more than just a general oblique statement … “a general reference to the provisions of this chapter, the authorized exemptions from open meeting requirements, or the subject matter of the closed meeting shall not be sufficient to satisfy the requirements for holding a closed meeting.”

Reasonable specificity of the subject is required. And, this has to be voted on by the public body. To go into closed session to discuss an elected official’s contact with employees of that government entity and the potential for disciplinary action against the employee(s) for even talking to the official smacks of an attempt to muzzle and quell freedom of access, as well as expression in either case.

As an Isle of Wight County School Board member, I know, as this was tried on me to a degree.

Additionally, the Freedom of Information Act is notable in its use of the word “may” versus “must,” the latter being most notable by its absence in the statute.

Yet public bodies sometimes act as if “must” is branded in their brains, by the ease with which they move into closed session.

There are very few reasons for public bodies needing to be out of the public eye, and rightly so. The people need to be able to see their representatives doing the people’s work — in the open. This is my opinion as an Isle of Wight School Board member.

When a closed meeting is reconvened into open session, a vote must be taken by the body affirming only those items voted on to go into closed session were discussed. Most importantly, “any action agreed to in the closed meeting is ineffective until its substance is ‘reasonably identified’ in public session and voted upon publicly.”

Know what’s really strange? When a public body’s legal counsel says this is not necessary and this is the person who is to keep the public body from violating the law.

“Houston, Isle of Wight, we have a problem!” Folks, get involved in your government, especially at the local level. Only open government is best, for we the people, for we are the government!

HERB DEGROFT is an Isle of Wight County School Board member, representing the Hardy District. He can be reached at