ACLU questions Petersburg City Council commitment to open government

aclu virginiaThe ACLU of Virginia has urged Petersburg City Council to correct its practices regarding announcement and scheduling of meetings following more than a dozen instances this year in which meetings were scheduled at times, places or in a manner that was inconvenient to the public or discouraged its participation.

In a letter dated Nov. 21, ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga took Mayor W. Howard Myers and the rest of council to task for 13 special meetings called between March and October to address critical issues of governance and financial management that were held during regular weekday work hours, precluding many residents and others from being able to attend.

In addition, at least four special meetings between June and August were held in small rooms seating as few as six people.

“Holding meetings at inconvenient times and in small spaces that cannot accommodate the public violates the spirit of open government laws that serve to ‘promote an increased awareness by all persons of government activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government,’” Gastañaga’s letter states.

The ACLU-VA also noted some of the meetings were publicized in advance as only having agenda items for discussion behind closed doors, even though on at least one occasion the council’s attorney advised there was no legal basis for a closed session, so the meeting was held in open session.

“When a meeting is scheduled and announced as a closed meeting, it has the result of suppressing interest in attending and participating,” the letter said. “Members of the media and the public may decide not to attend a meeting announced as including a closed session because there may be a significant portion of the meeting that they will be unable to attend or hear.”

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) outlines how and when local governments may meet, including when they may meet in open session. The law calls for its provisions to be “liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.”

Holding special meetings during the day, at locations with small capacities, and publicizing them as only including closed session items for discussion undermines the spirit of FOIA, the ACLU-VA’s letter said.

The ACLU-VA has a history of taking legal action against the Petersburg council over open government issues. In 2015, the ACLU-VA filed suit against the council on behalf of Linwood Christian, a resident who was prohibited from speaking during a public comment period because of an unpaid fee associated with a prior run for public office. The case was settled out of court, with the council agreeing to pay Mr. Christian’s legal fees and make a public statement in support of First Amendment rights.

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