Another stealth workgroup? Really?

We don't need another workgroup to hold meetings in private, especially not on an issue of such magnitude as the proposed lifting of the uranium mining moratorium.

It's Sunshine Week - March 11 - March 17

It seems like only yesterday I was writing about a workgroup the governor designed to advise a public body that would operate outside the Freedom of Information Act.
Ah yes. Those were the days.

I mean, they’re still the days.

Did you see it? On Wednesday, Jeff Caldwell, a spokesperson for Gov. Bob McDonnell told a subcommittee of the Coal and Energy Commission that it would create a working group “to allow our state agency subject matter experts to methodically deliberate the scientific issues facing uranium mining in Virginia, including the issues raised by previous studies.”

Deputy Director of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy Cathie France, who will lead the group, further explained that the group would not hold meetings, though the group will publicly update the Commission on four occasions.

The group’s records won’t be available, either, France said, because they are “confidential governor’s working papers” that are “prepared for him, at his direction, for him to make a decision.”

(Perhaps just a quibble, but Caldwell noted that “ultimately, it is the General Assembly that must decide whether or not to lift the uranium moratorium,” so if the group is just deliberating scientific facts, then what decision is McDonnel going to make?)

Anyway, this is the same maneuver the administration used during the Government Reform & Restructuring Commission’s second year. The first year, there were subcommittees studying various aspects of government reform. The second year, they opted for “work groups” whose meetings were not publicized. The governor’s office claimed the workgroups were not subject to FOIA.

When the reform commission’s workgroups were criticized, the governor’s spokesperson at the time, Tucker Martin, said, “More voices are being heard. More opinions are being considered. That kind of transparency can be difficult for some to properly conceptualize, as it is a relatively new way of doing business at the government level.”

And while you try to figure out exactly how a new kind of transparency that involves doing things out of the public eye actually works, consider France’s additional comments: "It's not because we don't want to be transparent," but getting comments via the Web makes it easier for group members to share information, she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Of course it’s easier to do business behind closed doors. It would be easier if members of a public body could meet whenever and wherever they wanted to talk about anything they wanted. It would be easier if they didn’t have to take minutes or notify the public about their meetings.

It would be easier if government’s had unlimited amount of time to answer requests for records.

It would be easier if government just had to post requests for proposal or other public notices on their own websites instead of in the newspapers.
It would be easier if government could hold electronic meetings however they wanted.

Those last three were proposed by the governor’s Task Force on Local Government Mandate Review and the Government Reform Commission, as was another proposal from the Reform Commission in 2010 to eliminate the FOIA Council.

But easier isn’t better. It’s not even right. It’s not what the public wants or expects. Efficiency in government should not come at the expense of public accountability.
Thank goodness Del. Donald Merricks (R-Chatham) who is on the Coal and Energy Commission and whose district will be directly affected by a decision on the minining moratorium spoke up and said, “I’m concerned about the transparency part. … We may need to talk about that.”

Indeed we should, Del. Merricks. And the governor’s office should (a) know that already, and (b) be thinking of ways to increase transparency during a process that will have lasting implications for Virginia, not thinking of new kinds of transparency that “can be difficult for some to properly conceptualize.”

Open the workgroup to the public, Governor McDonnell!

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