Editorial – Secrecy is killing ‘Grange’ support

Published 7:24 pm Tuesday, November 1, 2022

A common misconception of Virginia’s open-meetings law is that public bodies must go into closed session to discuss certain topics. That’s wrong.

The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t even say they should. It simply says they may do so in certain circumstances.

The Smithfield Town Council and Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors, which are doing their best to undermine the citizenry’s confidence in their handling of a controversial real estate development on the western edge of town, need a refresher course on the importance of transparent government. If the Town Council gets an “F” on transparency after their recent secret discussion preceding a vote to spend $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars, the supervisors get a D-minus. They at least had some discussion preceding their vote on the identical topic but, disturbingly, failed to list the matter on their published Oct. 20 agenda so that interested citizens could attend and speak on the matter during the meeting’s public comment period.

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For the record, we believe that taxpayer investment in a new farmers market on the site of the future “Grange at 10Main” mixed-use development has merit, though much more information is needed for us to give it our full-throated endorsement. Likewise, we look favorably on the Luter family’s bigger plans for the property, though details are worrisomely scarce for the town and county to already be pledging millions of dollars to the property.

The Town Council’s public image, still reeling from approval of a massive new housing development off Battery Park Road, is tattered. Its members are going to make it worse with more secret discussions like what preceded the commitment of millions of tax dollars to the Luters’ “Grange” development and expansion of a sports complex that bears the family’s name. We’re surprised, and disappointed, that county supervisors, whose constituents are even less than enthusiastic about the Luters’ plans for the former Pierceville property, would put their own image at stake.

The Luters deserve better. They’ve been very open about the Grange project, even paying for a full-page ad in this newspaper to explain why they believe it to be a good thing for the town. When town and county officials turn around and shroud the project in secrecy, the citizenry loses faith in both the developer and the officials they elected to serve them.

We’re fast losing hope that the “Grange” and a new farmers market will be thoroughly vetted and eventually supported by the community whose confidence is essential to the project’s success.