Column – Government secrecy isn’t new in these parts
Published 5:35 pm Tuesday, June 6, 2023
As the town of Smithfield wrestles with a proposed “public-private partnership” in which town and county taxpayers are being asked to invest in the commercial and residential development of the Pierceville farm, governmental secrecy has again come into play.
Estimates of the tax dollars being requested to do the deal have been known by some public officials for months, but only recently became public, and the disclosure came about through this newspaper’s reporting, not governmental transparency.
Governmental secrecy is nothing new, and there are several things town and county residents should keep in mind as they deal with it.
First, there are admittedly times when secrecy is necessary — but they are far fewer than government officials would have you believe. If there were a terrorist plot to blow up the county courthouse, we certainly wouldn’t expect the Sheriff’s Department to give away details of its investigation into said plot. We would, however, expect to be told to evacuate the building if the plot seemed real. That would be a proper use and then release of secret information.
Hiring employees is another instance when secrecy can be justified, although when top leadership is hired, secrecy often backfires, as the county’s School Board and Smithfield’s Town Council might both admit if they were to be honest.
There are a few other instances in which secrecy is justified, but not many. What’s rarely ever justified — but almost always employed — is secrecy when somebody shows up with an idea that will cost local taxpayers money, often in the guise of a “public-private partnership.” That term is often government-speak for taxpayer money being used to make a private venture possible.
The unnecessary use of secrecy is a long and rather inglorious tradition in Virginia and here locally. Isle of Wight and Smithfield have been in love with governmental secrets throughout their history, including the half-century that I’ve been watching.
Among the grander schemes that were negotiated secretly in the county was a plan by the Southeastern Public Service Authority to build a regional landfill in the county. There was a huge amount of opposition to the suggestion, and ultimately, the facility was not built here, but much of the opposition was aimed at the fact that the county and SPSA officials talked about the possibility in private.
Likewise, more recently, were plans to locate a juvenile detention facility near Windsor. The facility was strongly opposed, but the secrecy that initially surrounded it lent fuel to the opposition.
Smithfield’s Town Councils haven’t been immune to the secrecy bug. In 1996, the town developed annexation fever, a recurring malady in which the town scarfs up county land to increase its tax base. Smithfield has experienced that ailment repeatedly, but invariably seems embarrassed by it, and tries to keep it a secret from the public — especially from the landowners whose property is being annexed.
County officials, in that instance, wanted transparency, but the town protested and said if annexation plans were revealed it would lead to a costly court battle. Both sides agreed to keep it a secret so that when it finally became public, it was far too late for those being annexed to have any control over their destiny. Today, they pay town taxes.
Among the most egregious local government secrets, however, are those involving real estate development plans. By the time the public learns the details of a proposed development, there is little that can be done to stop or even modify it. And that, of course, is a key purpose of secrecy. Get the job done, then let the public know what it will have to accept when it’s too late for disclosure to have any effect.
One of the uglier aspects of governmental secrecy — and the element that makes secrecy possible — is the often-cited “pledge” of secrecy that elected officials claim they would be violating if they spilled the beans on something. In reality, Virginia law mandates that when public officials are told something in private session that they believe should be public knowledge, they are obliged to say so. But local government attorneys across Virginia — including here — spend a lot of time trying to convince supervisors, town council and school board members that they must remain silent about the public’s business. It would be considered bad form to rat out their elected or appointed peers.
And thus, secrecy continues, and taxpayers often learn — only when it’s too late — just how costly secrecy can be.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.