Remember the Caroline County Board of Supervisors and their secret subcommittees?

Read the previous coverage here.

Well, Colonial Beach has done the same thing as Caroline County (The Journal Press):

The Spring of 2008 witnessed the Town of Colonial Beach ushering in a new regime – three new council members, Burkett Lyburn, Ronald “Sparky” Ridgely and Karen Payne; and one new mayor, Fred Rummage. Almost immediately the composite of the Council changed again when Council Representative Linda Crandell resigned and Planning Commission Chair, David Coombes, was appointed in her place.

As one would expect with a new council and mayor at the helm of Colonial Beach, changes have been made and some of them not necessarily for the better. What was once a fairly open style of government has been slowly moving towards the side of privatization.

One of the largest and most notable changes that has occurred is the eradication of the three-person committee. Whereas previously the Town of Colonial Beach had been utilizing a three-person committee made up of Council members, and on some committees members of the public as well, to oversee particular areas such as public works and public safety, a single member is now being designated as being “responsible for the oversight of”.

The reason this is of such importance is because of the number 3; three council members together in one place discussing council business constitutes a meeting which means that it must be advertised and the public must be allowed to attend. This is so that government business, the government business of Colonial Beach, is discussed in an open forum that provides residents the opportunity to make themselves aware of what their government is doing.

This also makes it possible for journalists to attend and obtain information and relay it to the public, again so citizens are aware of what their government is doing. This is specified in 2.2-3700 of The Virginia Freedom of Information Act; “By enacting this chapter, the General Assembly ensures the people of the Commonwealth ready access to public records in the custody of a public body or its officers and employees, and free entry to meetings of public bodies wherein the business of the people is being conducted.” A committee of one, in theory, might not have to make the public aware of when they are conducting business.

The reason for this thought might be perhaps because the term “meeting” under 2.2 -3701 Definitions under FOIA, is designated as “the meetings, including work sessions when sitting physically, or through telephonic or video equipment pursuant to 2.2-37-8 or 2.2-3708.1, as a body or entity, or as an informal assemblage of (i) as many as three members or (ii) a quorum, if less than three, of the constituent membership, wherever held, with or without minutes being taken, whether or not votes are cast, of any public body.”

This change to one person committees, however, is also of note, because at this year’s Town Council’s FOIA review session conducted by the Town Attorney, Andrea Erard, the Mayor joked that the FOIA was the reason he had established things this way. On August 14th Agenda #52-08, Resolution – Approval of Mayor’s Monitoring Appointments of Town Council Members was voted and approved.

Almost immediately after approving the monitoring appointments, the mayor appointed a committee of two, Steve Kennedy and Sparky Ridgely, to look into complaints regarding the public works department. And although no jokes were made about this committee being able to meet in private and fly under the radar, the assumption is there. So it needs to be remembered that this two-person committee, just as the oversight positions, was voted into being by the rest of the council, in other words, approved by the public body itself, to conduct business on its, the council’s behalf.

The vote that was taken establishes this two-person committee, just as it did the oversight positions, is an extension of the public body, thereby making them public bodies themselves. It says so, again in 2.2-3701 under the definitions for FOIA; “Public body” means any legislative body, authority, board, bureau, commission, district or agency of the Commonwealth or of any political subdivision of the Commonwealth, including cities, town and counties, municipal councils, governing bodies of counties, school boards and planning commissions; boards of visitors of public institutions of higher education; and other organizations, corporations or agencies in the Commonwealth supported wholly or principally by public funds. … and (ii) any committee, subcommittee, or other entity however designated, of the public body created to perform delegated functions of the public body or to advise the public body. It shall not exclude any such committee, subcommittee or entity because it has private sector or citizen members….”

This is not to say that all council business has been conducted in secret, Vice Mayor Trish King has opted to hold her economic development group meetings on the third Tuesday of the month at Town Center, Council Member Burkett Lyburn has also kept the public forum for Public Safety and Dave Coombes holds the Planning Commission meetings in public as well, but how about when he meets to handle a special assignment? And what of those representatives in charge of the budget, roads, water and sewer? When and with whom have they been meeting?

According to Maria Everett, with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council, “These committees of one, or two, composed of council members, are subsets of the larger body created to advise and as such all their meetings should be advertised and open to the public.” They do not however have to keep minutes. Everett said that if the intent was to thwart the Freedom of Information Act, the effort has been unsuccessful. The advisory council can be reached at (804) 225-3056.

It should be noted that these changes have occurred on the heels of a campaign where multiple promises, in fact portions of campaign platforms, consisted of pledges towards transparency and openness of government.

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