Polite, persistent activism gets more results than shouting

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Citizen activists, angry over any number of things, are increasingly making life miserable for the members of Virginia’s School Boards.

As Virginia Coalition of Government Executive Director Megan Rhyne corrected noted in a letter in the Times last week, residents do not have a “right” to speak during public meetings. They are given the privilege of doing so. Public hearings are the only place where the right to speak is guaranteed by state law.

Those who shout down others with opposing views, who refuse to follow rules of decorum in giving their own remarks, including accepting time limits, will ultimately force School Board members to write even more rigid rules governing public speech during regular meetings.

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School Board members have business they must conduct. That’s why they meet. Hearing their constituents’ complaints about this or that school policy is important, but there are other ways it can be accomplished, and if the critics who are now railing over so-called Critical Race Theory and mask mandates insist on disrupting meetings, it will become necessary for School Boards to enforce meeting decorum in whatever legal means they have, including barring comment and ejecting hecklers.

Beyond the immediate difficulties posed by these angry expressions is the damage that will be done to citizen activism generally. It need not be that way.

A different approach

A case study of positive activism might be useful to all concerned, and it can be found in the very positive actions taken by a Nelson County couple nearly two decades ago.

Lee Albright and his wife Paulette live on a small farm in Montebello. Next door is a Virginia Game Commission fish hatchery.

A visit to the hatchery had been a favorite for school classes as well as tourists traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway. That is, until the state closed the facility to visitors. The Albrights asked why and got some vague response that it was due to budget cuts.

They weren’t satisfied with the answers and began pursuing the matter. Using the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, they asked for Game Commission expense accounts and budgets. The Commission retaliated by charging exorbitant fees for copies, but the couple persisted.

The Albrights met Virginia Press Association Director Ginger Stanley, who in turn introduced them to Stewart Bryan, president of Media General in Richmond. He opened news doors, and the Albrights’ work was featured in stories in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

They learned as they went and, using FOIA, eventually received records that were deeply troubling. They learned that while the state said it couldn’t afford public tours at the fish hatchery, it could afford to send Game Commission officials on African safaris and house them in expensive hotels when traveling.

A Game Commission whistleblower came forward and provided additional information. In the end, three Commission employees were indicted for the misuse of public monies. They were later exonerated, but the point was clearly made.

Throughout their research, the Albrights maintained a calm and respectful demeanor, politely asking, then politely demanding, information from an agency that didn’t want to provide it.

They never used concocted “theories” that are so popular among today’s activists, but relied on factual, provable data.

Their efforts weren’t inexpensive. The Albrights spent approximately $5,000 in their quest for information. Those charges later led the General to tighten the language in FOIA dealing with the cost of documents, another positive result of the couple’s work.

Today, the Albrights continue to live quietly in their mountainside home. The fish hatchery is again closed, but this time due to Covid.

The couple takes a dim view of the angry outbursts they read about today. Such behavior, Lee said this week, “discourages rational people from getting involved.”

That, from a person who fully understands the benefit of public involvement, pretty well sums it up.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.