Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


March 9, 2014

Open government: Closed doors problematic in Tazewell

— — Locally elected officials are expected to conduct public business in the open, and not behind closed doors. And any abuse of closed-door executive sessions represents a serious breach of trust between an elected official and those constituents he or she is charged with serving.

That’s why we are concerned by the recent actions of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors. Not only is this board holding executive sessions every month, but the five elected board members are increasingly spending more and more time behind closed doors. This is unacceptable, and can not continue.

Such closed-door meetings should be the exception, and never the rule. But they are seemingly being held every month by the board of supervisors. The regular board meetings begin each month at 6 p.m. Normally — but not always — there is a good-sized crowd in attendance. However, after the meeting is convened, the board members then retire into a closed-door executive session leaving the crowd outside,  and the press, waiting for public business to be conducted. This action is insulting to those citizens who attend the regular meetings expecting the business of the public to be conducted in the open.

When the board started holding executive sessions at the beginning of their meetings a year or two ago, we were told the closed-door meetings would only last for an hour. Such has not been the case.

For example, in February the board didn’t come out of a closed-door executive session until almost 7:30 p.m. There was a large crowd of police, fire, rescue and other EMS personnel in attendance at this meeting who were forced to sit and wait on the board members to come out of executive session. Those EMS officials came to the meeting expecting to be honored for their heroics in battling a New Year’s Eve fire on Main Street. Instead, they were left waiting outside while the board members conducted business behind closed doors.

This past Tuesday night, the board stayed in executive session once again for more than an hour and a half — and once again left the public and the press waiting for the actual public meeting to begin. This is unacceptable.

There is a simple solution to this problem, and one that we would strongly encourage the board members to immediately adopt.

We realize that the law does allow public bodies to conduct closed-door executive sessions for certain topics, including personnel issues, prospective business and industry negotiations where there have been no prior public announcements and student discipline hearings, among a few other exceptions. When such executive sessions are necessary, they should be scheduled at the end of the regular public meeting and not at the beginning. The board must conduct its normal public business first.

We believe 6 p.m. is still a good starting time, and should provide the board members ample time to complete all necessary public business in the open before the public and the press. Then, and only then, should closed-door meetings be held — and only if they are absolutely necessary.

Holding closed-door sessions while the public is in attendance — and expecting public business to be discussed — is disrespectful to the good citizens of Tazewell County. It’s also a problem for the press. It is our responsibility to report on the actions of the five elected members of this board, and the decisions they make that will have a direct impact on their constituents. But it is difficult to do this when the board members spend most of their time behind closed doors.

Beginning immediately, the board should reschedule any closed-door executive session that is absolutely necessary to the end of the regular agenda schedule. Conduct the business of the public first. No exceptions!

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