Virginia's Freedom of Information Act is blunt about public meetings.
It ensures "free entry to meetings of public bodies wherein the business of the public is conducted."
And while the 45-year-old law allows some exemptions – notably when the topic is pending litigation, personnel issues, matters of security or real estate transactions – the law presumes elected officials or their appointees on commissions, committees or boards will conduct business in the open.
More, they must let the public know in advance where and when they are meeting, and provide an agenda prior to the meeting.
"The purpose is to send a message that the public's business will be done in public," said College of William and Mary political science professor John McGlennon, who also is an elected James City County supervisor.
McGlennon and other government scholars and open government advocates say holding open meetings is critical to democracy, whether it plays out at the national, state or local level.
"People need to know what is happening in government," McGlennon said.
Christopher Newport University professor Quentin Kidd, director of the university's Wason Center for Public Policy, agrees.
"Democracy is not just about having two or more choices in an election," Kidd said. "It's about the ability to be informed about what those choices are."
Kidd said meetings provide an opportunity for citizens to know what lawmakers do after they have been elected.
"Basically everything encompassed in the sunshine laws gives us the ability to judge what a candidate says they will do against what they do in office," he said. "Absent that, our democracy is diminished."
Most localities and school divisions publish meeting information on their websites, but you may not find it on the home page. Meeting information can be found under listings for the city council, school board or board of supervisors. Minutes of the meetings also must be available to the public, and any materials provided to elected and appointed officials at the meeting.
Other entities also hold public meetings, including planning commissions and boards of equalization. They, too, must publish advance notice. Any required public hearings, such as those held before localities and school boards vote on budgets, also must be published online and in a newspaper.
Kidd said access to meetings helps people follow issues and concerns that directly affect them, such as zoning or tax changes.
"Imagine if everything the planning commissions of cities and counties deliberated was in private and you never had access to their records," he said.
When public bodies attempt to debate issues out of the public view, the move can backfire. William and Mary law professor Jim Heller noted the outcry when the University of Virginia Board of Visitors forced President Teresa Sullivan to resign.
"The discussions took place out of the public eye," he said. "It was done without the public knowing what was going on."
The backlash was so great, the board rehired Sullivan, but mistrust remains and the university has been sanctioned by its accrediting agency.
Heller and McGlennon noted that many localities and school divisions televise and livestream their regularly scheduled meetings and archive videos of them on their websites.
Broadcasting the meetings allows members of the public to keep tabs on their government officials, even if they cannot attend the meeting in person.
But some discussions do take place out of public view, in what are called closed or executive sessions. "There are reasonable reasons for holding closed meetings, such as discussing property transactions," Heller said. "But the public should know what the closed session is about."
In fact, the board, commission or council must announce the reason for the closed session, usually citing the exemption in the FOIA allowing it. Officials must say whether action is anticipated when reconvening in open session. Members of the public can object to a closed session, but such objections do not necessarily prevent the body from adjourning to closed session.
While boards and councils can discuss matters in closed session, then cannot take action during them. For that, they must reconvene in public session.
McGlennon said the law sets a clear standard: "We don't expect you to make decisions in private."
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, notes some officials chafe at the open meetings requirement. She recalled a recent Washington Post story in which a University of Virginia official said open meetings get in the way of government. "There's some sympathy for that point of view," she said.
In a blog post on the coalition's website, Rhyne said the law allows elected and appointed officials to communicate outside public meetings. They can talk to one another one-on-one. They can email each other, although such emails become public records. But Rhyne cautions that there is no bright line between discussion and decisions. "Decisions do not materialize out of thin air," she wrote.
She advocates for more public discussion, not less, by governing bodies.
Hampton citizens advocate Gaylene Kanoyton agrees, and would like to see more input from the community.
"I think citizen involvement is definitely important," Kanoyton said. "People have to pay attention to what is going on in our back yard. You have to speak up. We should all be advocates for what concerns us."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times