Sunday, October 14, 2012
Editorial: The oath of confidentiality
The Roanoke City Council forbids its members from talking about executive session discussions. What if the talk strays beyond allowable topics?
From the RoundTable blog
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Before the council can govern the city, it must govern itself, or so goes the premise behind the Roanoke City Council's "House Rules/Code of Conduct."
Rule No.1: "Maintain confidentiality following a closed meeting." Those who chew through the gag order risk public censure, or worse. Or so they're led to believe.
It's doubtful whether the odd Roanoke rule has teeth. Interim City Attorney Timothy Spencer points to state law on governing bodies to say that it does: "A governing body may punish or fine a member of the governing body for disorderly behavior." Violating the council code could be construed as disorderly behavior.
Yet the Code of Virginia also requires members of a governing body to disclose upon the conclusion of an executive session if the discussion strayed beyond allowable topics: "Any member of the public body who believes that there was a departure ... shall so state prior to the vote, indicating the substance of the departure that, in his judgment, has taken place."
A council member could not stay true to the section of state code that protects the public's interest without running afoul of the city rule that protects the council's secrets.
The little-known city rule, adopted in 2001 but adhered to by subsequent councils, came to light upon Mayor David Bowers' disclosure to the Mill Mountain Advisory Board that it might be disbanded.
How that notion came about is suspect. Since there has been no public discussion, the idea is believed to have arisen during an executive session called by the council to discuss filling vacancies on four of the board's nine seats. Bowers says he cannot say without legal penalty whether the topic was discussed in an executive session.
Spencer cannot talk about any specific matter without violating attorney-client privilege. He did say that if the council were talking about making an appointment (an allowable closed-door discussion) and one member said he didn't feel comfortable filling the seat because he wondered whether the committee should exist, that comment, too, would be OK. But any further discussion on the structure and existence of the committee would need to take place in an open meeting.
Spencer assures that when he is in the room, he stops the council the moment discussion strays beyond allowable topics as identified under open meeting requirements.
We have no reason to doubt him, but the city attorney isn't always in the room. Which leaves the public to trust that council members police themselves well enough, even if they've silenced their ability to blow the whistle on fouls. This is neither what the public expects nor state law requires.
There is an easy, effective remedy: The council needs to remove its self-imposed gag order.