Denial worse than the sin

Published 10:01 am Saturday, May 12, 2012

The glare of the public spotlight can be uncomfortable, as Southampton County supervisors are finding out with their controversial budget proposal for fiscal 2013.

But no matter how hot it gets — and supervisors should expect the mood of the citizenry to get a lot hotter before it cools down — retreating to back rooms and dark hallways to conduct the people’s business is not an option.

The board’s recent secret discussion about whether to allow public comment at a budget workshop was, on its face, a minor transgression.

Nonetheless, it violated the state’s open-meetings law and it put the board on a slippery slope. This time, it was a discussion about a procedural issue, albeit an important one. Next time, however, as supervisors get comfortable doing business outside the public eye, it could be a more significant decision that gets hashed out in secret.

Worse than the violation was board Chairman Dallas Jones’ and veteran Supervisor Ronnie West’s assertion that they did nothing wrong, even as Jones admitted that, on their supposed “break,” supervisors huddled in the hallway and discussed whether to let citizens speak at the meeting.

Jones and West know better. Virginia law is very clear on when a public body can confer in private. A discussion about meeting procedure is not among the handful of topics appropriate for a closed session.

Rather than making lame denials, supervisors need to admit that they screwed up and promise taxpayers that they won’t do it again. If Jones and West aren’t up to the task, perhaps the new supervisors who have already broken their campaign promise about tax increases can live up to their pledge of a more transparent county government.