The law is on Ms. Tynes’ side

Published 7:48 pm Tuesday, December 18, 2018

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Smithfield Town Council member Randy Pack’s lengthy speech attacking Denise Tynes for spilling the beans about the Council’s plan to give the Smithfield Recreation Association a 10-year interest payback of funds it owes the town was carefully structured.

The attack implied that a code of silence envelopes closed sessions, and that such sessions are a noble undertaking by public bodies doing the public’s business in what he views as an appropriately secret fashion.

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The four-minute screed was also a pointed effort to intimidate Ms. Tynes into never again daring to make public anything said in an executive session. And it was a warning to her and other members of the council, particularly the newest members — Beth Haywood, Valerie Butler and Wayne Hall — to never make the mistake of publicly disagreeing with established town leaders.

That the verbal assault failed miserably is evidenced by Ms. Tynes’ response to it. She told this newspaper that she considers the attack to be bullying, plain and simple, and that she won’t be intimidated by it.

Easily said, but it will take considerable courage for Ms. Tynes or other Council members to withstand the kind of public attack that has become so much a part of modern politics, even here in Smithfield.

But more to the point, let’s be clear about something. Ms. Tynes did not violate the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by responding to questions posed by The Smithfield Times. In fact, she followed the spirit of the law, though not the letter, in calling out the private discussion. Here’s what the law says, and it’s not what Mr. Pack said.

FOIA provides opportunities for public bodies to hold private discussions, but they are fairly specific exemptions, and the discussion concerning the Recreation Association’s request for a loan may not fall within one since there were no back-and-forth negotiations as Mr. Pack implies there were. There was one session during which the Council was asked to go along with the plan, which it did.

But whether the closed session can be legally justified is really irrelevant. The intent of FOIA is not to facilitate secret government actions, but to limit them. One of the key ways in which that is done is the “certification” procedure. It requires a public body, at the conclusion of any closed session, to affirm that only matters clearly exempted by the law were discussed.

Now, here’s the kicker. Each and every member of every public body in Virginia is required — not allowed, but required — to publicly report anything that occurred during a closed session that they personally believe exceeded FOIA’s authorization for private discussion.

The law doesn’t say the member should ask the town attorney. It says that if the member “believes that there was a departure” from FOIA or the specific exemption, they “shall so state” at the conclusion of the closed session.

Ms. Tynes didn’t do that. Quite probably, neither she nor other members of the Town Council have been fully aware of the requirement that each of them must, by law, be a whistle blower on other members of the body.

Nevertheless, Ms. Tynes’ later statements that the session was inappropriate are fully within the spirit of the law, and fully allowed. There is absolutely nothing in FOIA that binds members of public bodies to secrecy. There is no “code of silence,” stated or implied. Whether or not they disclose the closed-door dealings is entirely up to each member of a body.

In fact, the law encourages public officials to be more open rather than less. FOIA states quite forcefully that its adoption by the General Assembly “ensures the people of the Commonwealth ready access to public records … and free access to meetings of public bodies…”

The policy also states that, “This chapter shall not be construed to discourage the free discussion by government officials or employees of public matters with the citizens of the Commonwealth.” It’s up to you, Ms. Tynes. The law says so.

FOIA’s policy statement was added at the request of Gov. Gerald Baliles, a passionate advocate of open government, during his term in the late 1980s.

The “certification” requirement was added during a major overhaul of FOIA in 1989. I had the good fortune to be a member of the legislative study group that rewrote the act that time, and had made a bit more radical motion to tape record closed sessions so that, in the event of a challenge, a judge could more easily determine whether or not there had been a legal discussion.

The motion actually passed, but didn’t stick. More moderate heads prevailed and Del. Bill Axselle, who was chairing the study, asked me to support a compromise — a certification procedure that would place the burden on individual members of public bodies to police themselves and their fellow officials.

That compromise was adopted and remains in FOIA today. It hasn’t worked as well as Del. Axselle hoped it would because public bodies too often view secrecy as Mr. Pack does. They claim a code of silence exists around closed-door talks. It does not, but too often, public officials love to think it does.

It would be a positive development if, in the future, members of the Town Council were to show respect rather than contempt for fellow members who see the public’s right to know as clearly as Mrs. Tynes did in this instance.