Letter – Build trust with citizens

Published 6:15 pm Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Editor, The Smithfield Times:

“Trust me, I’m with the government” is a line that comforts few – if any.

At the June 6 Board of Supervisors meeting, I confronted a Surry County supervisor’s comment: that citizens had “no idea” as to what $10 million debt-funded and earmarked for a pool, amphitheater and dining hall will be used for. I quoted the same supervisor: “Go to the proper source at the proper time and you will become knowledgeable” – and compared that counsel to a bad fortune cookie. 

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I called for full transparency. The board chair responded that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are common (“a lot of times…”) between the county and businesses; but after a public comment period (absent the withheld information) the public will be privy to the board’s public vote to approve or deny. 

Rather than being a testament to transparency, that sounds like a verification that the county routinely enters into agreements that create barriers to full disclosure. That’s not healthy; and it doesn’t explain why citizens’ questions on the budget were “acknowledged” but not answered, or outright ignored, prior and subsequent to the budget approval process.

Surry County can take the following steps to build trust with its citizens:

  • Prioritize transparency. Citizens (voters) are above the supervisors on the organizational chart; and we are certainly above corporate interests when it comes to duties of loyalty and transparency.
  • When NDAs are in place, and those NDAs prohibit detailed answers to specific questions, the  county must either work with the entity to overcome the barrier, or at minimum publicly acknowledge that there are inflexible legal barriers to disclosing the requested information.
  • Never use NDAs as an excuse for government opacity. That’s a shield that’s easily abused, and impossible for most citizens to effectively challenge.
  • Limit or avoid restrictive non-disclosure agreements which by their nature create barriers to transparency.

These steps will go a long way toward building a trust that needs to be earned,

not just blindly given. And while we’re at it: Richmond should take a hard look at

drafting legislation prohibiting local governments from making end-runs around

the Freedom of Information Act.


Dr. Daniel A. Shaye