Norfolk’s growing lack of transparency

transparencyOr, if you prefer, one step forward, two steps back.

My latest op-ed, title above, appeared in The Virginian-Pilot Thursday. I was appalled to read that Norfolk has decided to no longer release records of its bar task force, citing an exemption allowed in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. That we don’t even know what makes up the task force tells you that something is amiss here.

Add to that the proposed charter change that council reportedly first discussed at its retreat in September and then was included in its legislative package just days later, and you have a recipe for an increasing lack of transparency here.

I thought we had made some progress in Norfolk. As I look back to my civic resolutions column from two years ago, Norfolk started broadcasting its work sessions, allowing the public a glimpse into the workings of those who would represent us. We have a process for volunteering and an application (pdf) for appointment to boards and commissions, and board, commissions and authorities member lists, including dates that the appointments expire.

But we can’t allow that. Norfolk’s leadership has to know that citizen engagement is an important part of a thriving city. And they have to do more to make that happen. It can’t always be our responsibility to respond to their actions, especially when we only learn of the actions after the fact.

Government embrace of transparency is a requirement, not an option. And I really hope Norfolk looks at itself and figures out that we citizens are partners here, not adversaries.

My column appears in The Virginian-Pilot on Wednesdays (unless something comes up, in which case it’s Thursdays). You can see the columns as they are published here, or navigate to them from the homepage by clicking on Opinion and then choosing my name at the bottom of the dropdown list. You can also see the columns by liking my Facebook page. Although my column appears weekly, I am not and have never been an employee of The Virginian-Pilot.

6 thoughts on “Norfolk’s growing lack of transparency

  1. And people wonder why states like Florida have “Sunshine” laws. More times then not and even with the best of intentions, organizations, tend come to believe in a sort of star chamber mentality. “They” have a superior understanding of an issue or policy therefore for the good of the uninformed souls that are represented, a particular policy/act/rule is passed that is for the best.

    This lack of transparency represents the worst of local government along with the officials that allow it to happen without challenge. Moreover, it is the absolute arrogance that riles me; Arrrrgggghhhh….

  2. See, especially in regard to charter changes, the Dillon Rule serves a useful purpose. When your council starts hiding things, tries to obscure important changes, or becomes corrupt, the Dillon Rule is at least some kind of barrier to unlimited craziness.

    1. In theory, yes. But in practice, no. When was the last time the General Assembly said no to a charter change? Heck, they didn’t even provide proper oversight to Portsmouth’s charter change, creating a mess.

      Further, the citizens have no direct mechanism to force a charter change. If we can’t convince our local electeds to ask for one, we can’t ask ourselves.

  3. In practice, I would say that changes are more in the open than they otherwise would be. The delay even if short, exposes a council to potential public scrutiny. And at least pretend “public input”. Any hindering of council making sweeping changes is a good thing. I only have to point to charter changes for elections and the use of eminent domain to remove “undesirables” from the path of what they call progress. Not all cities have a Housing and Redevelopment Authority and I am thankful for that. To us, they are playing with real lives. To them, they might as well be playing Sim City and scoring points. They build in honor of themselves and secure revenue streams to the pockets of their friends.

    So under a Dillon rule, you can attempt to hold your council accountable for making unwanted changes as soon as you see it. You can hold their feet to the fire for make believe “citizen input” they stage. You can also, as has not been done, take your representatives in the General Assembly to task. Threaten them with “staying home” on election day.
    Councils all over Tidewater have learned they are not really accountable to an apathetic public that has better things to do. So when things get bad enough that they will stand up for themselves, give them every tool available to fight with. Give them every possible delay to use to organize. Give them battle grounds not just in city council, but also the general assembly.

    And you’re right, there is no direct method to force a charter change, The same mechanisms are in place. You apply pressure to city council and then General Assembly if needed. Charter changes SHOULDN’T be easy. For that matter, changes to a state or national constitution shouldn’t be easy. Some things need to take massive effort. You’re playing with real people here. It should be publicly aired and vetted. It should be……..transparent. Representing the people that elected you needs to mean something again. We vote for representation, not kings.

    1. If you don’t know that your council has requested a charter change, you can’t do anything about it. And even if you do know, the General Assembly has been loathe to go against the wishes of council. Case in point: when Norfolk switched to an elected mayor. We had a couple of sitting council members, in addition to citizens, lobby the GA against the plan put forth. Didn’t make a difference – the GA approved it anyway.

      So charter changes are easy – as long as that’s what council wants. But we as citizens don’t have a mechanism.

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