Column – ‘Open’ meeting left cub reporter with empty notepad
Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023
Governmental secrecy can be overt or, at times, covert. My first encounter with it was amusingly so.
“Green” doesn’t begin to describe my lack of experience during the summer of 1965 when I was hired as an intern to work in the Daily Press’ Smithfield office. (That was back in the days when daily newspapers not only had home offices with large newsrooms, but often also maintained outlying bureaus.)
Veteran reporter Bryce Bogard was the bureau chief in Smithfield and he assigned me to cover the Surry Board of Supervisors. Off I went, expecting to bring home some important news story from our neighboring county.
The Surry board, back then, had only three members — all very conservative white men. They met, together with the Surry Circuit Court clerk, who served as their secretary, in a cavernous room on the first floor of the courthouse. Two earlier Surry courthouses had burned to the ground, and after the last fire, the good people of that county had been determined it would never happen again, so they built a courthouse of reinforced concrete and brick. It was and is pretty much fireproof, but for meetings it was also an acoustical nightmare.
The supervisors sat at one end of this un-air-conditioned 30-foot-long room, while the audience was confined to the other end. It was a strain to hear, but not impossible.
The meeting convened, the chairman welcomed the public to the session and then commented that it sure was hot that night. The court clerk responded by walking over to a huge floor fan and plugging it in. It did indeed stir the air, but the noise it generated was akin to a small wind tunnel.
The supervisors proceeded to conduct the county’s business in total privacy, for none of us who attended heard another word.
When the board concluded its business, the clerk unplugged the fan, the chairman thanked everyone for coming and participating in the business of the county, and a motion was made to adjourn. I came back to Smithfield with an empty notebook except for the motion to adjourn.
Then, there are the overt attempts to conceal things. Probably the most egregious I ever encountered was when we asked to listen to the tape recording of a Board of Supervisors meeting back in 1987. The board’s staff had been taping its meetings to facilitate the writing of minutes for some time, and they had been routinely made available to anyone with a question about some board action.
The Smithfield Times asked to hear a tape of a meeting in September of that year and the county’s new administrator, Myles Standish, didn’t want to make it available. He declared that the tape was his private “working paper,” a designation that can make materials exempt under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
Standish was so insistent that the tape not be heard that he said he would erase it.
The newspaper filed for an injunction to prevent the erasure, but Circuit Court Judge James C. Godwin denied it, declaring the tapes to be the “property” of the Board of Supervisors and saying the board could destroy them if it chose to.
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act clearly defined meeting matters, including recordings, to be a public record, but the Virginia Supreme Court refused to accept an appeal, letting Judge Godwin’s ruling stand, at least in his circuit.
As luck would have it, a legislative study commission was convened the following year. I was named as a press representative on the commission and was determined to “fix” the tape problem. Both Republican and Democratic members, after sharing a good laugh over a court ruling that tapes of a public meeting weren’t public, agreed to amend FOIA to remove any doubt in anybody’s mind.
After the law was changed, it took the county some time and considerable handwringing to decide whether it wanted to spend the money and/or time necessary to make tapes available. The alternative was simply not to tape meetings.
In time, common sense prevailed and meeting access is vastly improved. Today, you can go to the county’s website and download agendas and minutes and not only listen to, but watch, videos of the meetings if you have something you specifically want to hear or are just bored enough to watch.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.