Quasi-public meeting– for those in the know

The last time Rich Collins invited the public and press to a meeting on the Meadowcreek Parkway's impact on historic properties, a city official refused to allow a citizen and reporter to stay. The November 26 dis-invitation irked some citizens enough that they complained at the next City Council meeting, and councilors voiced support to open up meetings as much as possible.

The next gathering about the parkway's historic impacts– called a Section 106 meeting in federalese– is tomorrow, and some of attendees are now heralding it as a public meeting. But is it?

Jeanette Janiczek, VDOT's program manager in Charlottesville, says it's open: "Everyone who seems interested has been made a consulting party." That means they're automatically invited to the meetings.

But no notice has been given to the public, which is required for a public meeting under the Freedom of Information Act.

"How else can it be open to the public if they don't know about it?" asks Maria Everett, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Public meetings require notice of at least three working days before the meeting, says Everett.

She also notes that government staff is not a "public body" under FOIA, and meetings they call are not required to be open to the public. "It sounds like the staff decided because of the push back to open the meeting up," says Everett. "Technically, they don't have to comply with FOIA. Even though they're not a public body, to say the meeting is open but not give notice is lip service." And that, adds Everett, falls under the "public relations side of FOIA."

Collins has mixed feelings about the so-called open meeting. "I do know the people who wanted to come, including the Sierra Club, can come," he says. But, "Somehow there is something in FOIA [staff] can exploit to keep citizens from meetings from which they could benefit– " especially on an issue like the Meadowcreek Parkway that "has consumed the community for decades."

He says the Section 106 meeting is not a typical staff meeting because it involves citizens meeting with federal, state, and local officials to voice their concerns on matters affecting public property. "Is something going on between these agencies that could change the impact on the interchange?" he wonders.

Colette Hall, president of the North Downtown Association, is the citizen who was booted out of the November 26 meeting. Now she's a consulting party, which means she's officially on the list, much as Collins is representing his organization, Sensible Transportation Alternatives to the Meadowcreek Parkway, and she's received material about the historic properties and how they could be impacted by the interchange.

Says Hall, "Now I've got all this consulting party stuff to read. I just wanted to go to the damn meeting."

The meeting is at 9:30am Thursday in Room 246 at the Albemarle County Office Building.

2 comments

They didn't contact anybody here at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. We're usually inundated by Section 106 correspondence from folks putting up cell towers.

Many people conducting the public's business do not feel comfortable voicing their opinions in view of people they do not know, and feel they can get more done in meetings as close to being behind closed doors as possible. Although I am somewhat surprised at the State staff's efforts to hide, I have noticed that this is a problem with many meetings held by City staffers, ad hoc committees and some permanent ones. If you go to the City's website and look at the events calendar, you see Council, Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, probably the BAR. If you're interested in the others, you have to make a special request for information for a particular meeting or ask to be placed on a mailing list, if there is one. There are City sponsored (paid for) meetings almost every day, but you'll never know from that calendar. I had to search for events calendar on the home page because the drop-down menus are enough to put someone in a mental hospital by the time he finds the link he's looking for. It's unbelievable that the site won some kind of award. Instead of an annual 4% raise every year, maybe we ought to give the city employees a 10% raise if they'd post their meetings and a 20% raise annually if they'd include links to an agenda. Transparency in government is what they campaign on and quickly forget when the lights are shining on them.