Board of Supervisors Meetings are public. If you want to see them debate, you can show up at the meeting, and watch. This is a good part of our form of government, and it means that any deal-making is done where we all can see it.
The law says that if 3 or more supervisors are at a meeting, that meeting is a public meeting and must be advertised. This law enforces that common-sense notion of open government.
However, two separate newspaper articles in the past week have raised the specter of applying this law to meetings where supervisors are merely attendees, or invitees. The Washington Post was first, in an article County to Publicize Groups' Meetings, April 20, 2006:
Prince William County will now publicize all meetings held by civic associations and other groups and attended by three or more county supervisors who could address pending votes of the Board of County Supervisors in those forums.
County Attorney Ross G. Horton clarified the need to publicize such meetings at the supervisors' meeting Tuesday.
The clarification was spurred by recent meetings of the Prince William County Republican Committee and the Nokesville Civic Association, where more than two supervisors were in attendance. The potential developments of a quarry in Nokesville and a planned community of 6,800 houses and two town centers, dubbed Brentswood, were discussed. The board is scheduled to vote on Brentswood on May 16, and the quarry will be on the agenda in June.
The Potomac news had a little more detail in their article Supervisors in a quandary, which details exactly what happened at the Nokesville meeting:
Four Prince William County supervisors recently wound up at a civic asssociation meeting during which discussion turned to a development that will come before the board in May.
The recent meeting of the Nokesville Civic Association drew Connaughton, and Supervisors Wally Covington, R-Brentsville, John T. Stirrup, R-Gainesville, Corey A. Stewart, R-Occoquan.
Covington and Connaughton were invited to speak. They were already there when Stirrup and Stewart showed up, Connaughton said.
When the discussion turned to the 6,800-home Brentswood development, a matter that will come before the board on May 16, Connaughton and Covington left the meeting.
The idea that you have to publicly advertise a republican committee meeting if the republican supervisors will attend may seem strange, but those meetings are already publicly advertised and generally open to the public -- probably because of this law.
And if the county wants to be overly cautious by advertising every meeting that the supervisors plan to attend, I think that is fine to. But what worries me is that supervisors may use this as an excuse to limit dialog.
For example, Sean and Wally both speak well of the Brentswood plan, while John and Corey both seem to oppose the rezoning. If by inviting Sean and Wally, a civics organization intended to prevent the other supervisors from appearing so only one side of the issue was discussed, that would be a bad thing. I'm not saying that's what happened -- in fact, if anything John and Corey were the only ones left to give their views -- which also was I think a BAD thing for the organization.
There is also the question of how much of a burden it is to advertise. Hilda Barg in the Washington Post article seemed to think groups should foot the bill for advertising if they want supervisors to show up, while Jenkins questioned whether Supervisors should show up at all:
If there is enough time, the county can include such meetings in public notices advertised in newspapers. Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) questioned whether the county should pay for advertising the meetings of private groups.
Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) said that supervisors have to be careful about speaking in front of groups about their positions on pending votes. "It's a very dangerous action," he said.
Comments can affect pending land sales and open the county up to lawsuits. "The lawyers are very smart out there, and they pick up on that," Jenkins said.
Corey Stewart doesn't want to limit supervisors talking to constituents::
Stewart said he would never support limiting supervisors' right to make their position known. "Don't anybody actually go out there and advocate something. We might get sued," he said sarcastically.
We had two supervisors (Wally and John) present views on the Brentswood project at the monthly Republican meeting, and Stewart was also in attendance -- other supervisors could also have been expected to attend. The meeting was publicly advertised at the McCoart building.
I wouldn't want anything to restrict the ability of groups to get supervisors to come speak at events. If that means having the supervisors take the responsibility for public notifications, then we should do that -- even if it is for private groups we wouldn't normally support.