All it took was a very loud fan

Published 5:41 pm Tuesday, March 13, 2018

in the short rows

This being “Sunshine Week,” it seems appropriate to say something positive about the public’s access to government. In Isle of Wight and Surry counties, at least, we’ve come a long way.

Public meetings today are ungrudgingly held in public. In fact the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors even streams its meetings so that you can observe first hand — assuming you’re really interested — one of its marathon meetings.

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Surry County hasn’t gotten to that point, but its meetings are open and you’re welcome to listen to speakers, including the five supervisors, assisted by a modern microphone and speaker setup.

Town Councils are similarly open and you can attend them all, if you really want to add some excitement to your life.

It hasn’t always been that way.

My first serious job as a journalist was a very long time ago — OK, it was 1965. I landed an internship as a reporter for the Daily Press. I worked in the Smithfield bureau office for Bryce Bogart, who gave me my first instruction in framing a photograph with an old Speed Graphic camera and writing a passable lead to a crime story.

One of my tasks was to cover the three-member Board of Supervisors in Surry County. The Board met back then met in a long, narrow room in the Surry Courthouse. The supervisors sat behind a table at one end of the room, together with their clerk (there was no county administrator back then). The public and one very young reporter were told to sit in chairs at the far end of the room.

The meetings I covered were during the summer months. There was no air conditioning and the room was pretty stuffy. The evenings went like this.

The chairman would call the meeting to order, the minutes of the previous meeting would be read, and then a supervisor would wipe his brow, declare that it sure was hot in the room, and ask that they turn on the fan.

A giant, commercial grade pedestal fan sat midway the room and the clerk would dutifully turn it on. As it roared, the supervisors proceeded to discuss whatever business they had that evening. We never heard a word in the far end of the room.

About an hour later, someone would nod to the clerk, who would arise, walk over and turn the fan off.

The chairman would ask, “Is there any more business to discuss?” to which, the other two supervisors would nod in the negative.

“In that case, I want to thank the public for attending,” the chairman said, and the meeting was then adjourned.

I wouldn’t have had the nerve to complain back then, but even if I had, there really would have been little basis for doing so. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which would require that meetings be open to the public and would eventually be interpreted to mean that “open” also meant audible, wasn’t enacted until 1968.

And when it came into being, local governments were broadly suspicious of it. Many boards of supervisors, town councils and school boards back in those days felt the public was best served if honest people (almost all of them men) were allowed to conduct the public’s business quietly and privately.

That attitude was slow to change, here as elsewhere, but it did change. There are still local officials who try to keep information from the public, but the tendency is significantly less pronounced than back in the days of the loud Surry fan.