Nearly every local government these days spends time talking about how much they value transparency. Yet with rapid advances in communication technology, ensuring open government seems to get more difficult, even though citizens might expect the opposite to be true.
It wasn’t long ago that enforcing open meeting laws was as simple as making sure no more than two supervisors or council members at a time were talking about the public’s business in smoky back rooms. With the advent of email, back-channel (non-public) communication became far easier, although there remained a record of the conversation—if the participants preserved the files and if the members of the public somehow knew to ask to see them.
Today, there are numerous options for instant communication—Instant Messenger, Facebook Messenger, phone texts. Some, like Snapchat, are designed to make the messages disappear—poof. And each of these tools are available at government officials’ fingertips 24/7.
That is the environment in which governments operate today.
Members of the General Assembly and Freedom of Information advocates should continue their efforts to keep the operations of government in the sunshine. However, in reality there is no substitute for elected leaders’ strong commitment to the principals of open government and transparency. It will be the standards and expectations they set—more so than behind-the-times state laws—that will determine their success.
In the case at hand, Supervisor Tony Buffington’s opposition to plans for a larger grocery store on the property in his district was no secret. There is no reason to think that sharing his positions in private text messages would be more effective than participating in the meeting by telephone or simply sending a statement to be read into the record (which turned out to be the result anyway thanks to the quick thinking of a county attorney). Even if the text messages did not violate current laws, clearly the latter two options better serve the public’s cause.
Here’s another option: Supervisors could turn off their phones during meetings.
In the long run, the circus of Friday’s meeting may inspire another change to Virginia’s open meeting laws. We hope the more immediate result is for Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors—and the county’s other local governing bodies—to renew their commitment to adhere to the letter and the spirit of FOIA laws in all their actions when carrying out the public’s business. Only good can come from that.