Council transparency report sheds some light on executive sessions

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By Chris Teale (File photo)

For the first time, residents can have a better idea of what takes place at city council’s closed executive sessions after a new report was published detailing recent proceedings.

The report, prepared by city clerk Jackie Henderson and posted online, details the number of times council went into executive session during the 2016 fiscal year, the legal rationale for each session and the votes to initiate and certify those meetings.

The report says council entered executive session during its legislative meetings on 15 occasions in that period, seven under former Mayor Bill Euille and eight after Mayor Allison Silberberg was sworn in last January. Each executive session was entered into with a unanimous vote, and while staff can be given instructions in closed sessions by councilors, official decisions and votes must be made in open session.

The number of executive sessions is consistent with previous fiscal years — viewable in each meeting’s minutes on the city’s website. In the 2015 fiscal year, council held 13 closed meetings, and in fiscal 2014 it had 18.

The report was part of Silberberg’s ethics and transparency initiative, one of the hallmarks of her campaign for the mayoralty. In the resolution passed by council in January that established an ad hoc ethics advisory committee, the clerk also was instructed to collate details on the executive sessions. Council will review the document at its first post-recess legislative meeting on September 13.

“Anything that we can do to add transparency to our governance and process is a good thing,” Silberberg said. “I came out the gate with this as we started our term, and I incorporated ideas from colleagues and this was part of it. This is part of adding to the public’s understanding of their government and what we’re doing.”

Advocates for greater transparency in government agreed it helped bring residents closer to proceedings.

“[A record of executive sessions] is an area we’ve wished would change, because if there is ever a dispute in a closed meeting, then we would hope there would be a record that would help resolve the issue,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “We’ve advocated for some sort of record to be kept of a closed session.

“This is providing summaries of what they’re dis- cussing in closed sessions; that is more than the public is usually getting, so it’s generally a positive step.”

Rhyne said she is not aware of a similar effort in any other jurisdiction in the commonwealth.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, city council and similar bodies in other jurisdictions are able to legally enter closed session for a number of reasons, including to discuss city personnel performance and other issues surrounding employees; to take legal advice; to discuss the city buying or selling property; to discuss the investment of public funds or other resources; for public safety, and to discuss the awarding of contracts.

The clerk’s report indicates councilors went into executive session on several occasions to discuss pending and threatened litigation. Council also discussed the acquisition of property for a public purpose, and buying land from the federal government to support a public transportation project.

It also carried out performance evaluations of its appointees — the city clerk, city manager and city attorney — and discussed plans related to the security of a governmental facility.

And while it can be assumed, for example, that the public transportation project discussed was the proposed Potomac Yard Metro station, the report does not specify further.

“For example, a lot of the times we’re going into executive session we are talking about the sale or purchase of a property where if we talked about it in public, we would essentially compromise the negotiating posture of the city,”said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “… We do the same thing with litigation. We do a lot of executive sessions regarding litigation that we’re either involved in or might become involved in, and it’s the same thing.”

During the mayoral campaign, Silberberg said that council should use executive sessions more sparingly, and she repeated that call, albeit leaving some issues behind closed doors to protect the city’s interests. In particular, she suggested bringing more real estate discussions out into the open, so citizens can get involved more easily.

“Some of these are protected: someone’s suing the city or there’s a personnel matter or some real estate matters,” she said. “But the real estate matters, I want the public’s input. We need it. We have a brilliant citizenry, and we have commissions and boards. I welcome the public’s input. It helps us and it helps me lead, and I’m interested in hearing from different points of view.”

Wilson expressed reluctance towards real estate negotiations being done in open session, as prices could change and weaken the city’s bargaining position, but that it could be examined.

“If from a policy perspective someone were to say, ‘I think we should no longer have executive sessions about property negotiations,’ that’s an interesting proposal,” he said. “We’ll have to talk about it. Honestly, it would probably hurt the taxpayers because it would mean we would be negotiating against ourselves essentially in public.”

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