NEWS- Uninvited: Citizens face road meetings detour
Rich Collins has a long history as an activist who's not afraid to stand his ground– he's the guy who got arrested at Whole Foods for handing out fliers. His current cause is to thwart the Meadowcreek Parkway by having McIntire Park golf course declared a historic landmark.
When a meeting was called November 26 to discuss the parkway interchange and its impact on historical properties, Collins invited the public and the press– only to be chastised, he says, by a city official and told the public wasn't allowed.
"I was quite upset because I had invited people who were interested," says Collins. "To me it's typical of the whole process– trying to keep troublemakers like me under wraps."
But to Angela Tucker, Charlottesville's development services manager who called the meeting, there's a very good reason the gathering wasn't public: it had not been advertised as required by the Freedom of Information Act. "It's not about hiding anything," she insists.
Brian Wheeler is executive director of Charlottesville Tomorrow and a member of the Albemarle School Board. When he tried to attend a meeting of the Hillsdale Steering Committee on November 13, he was also told by Tucker that the steering committee meetings were not public, nor had they been the past four years.
"I went in knowing it was not an advertised public meeting," says Wheeler. "I went in prepared. But when you've been to as many public meetings as I have, it's disconcerting to hear."
In both cases, Tucker met the requirements of Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, which mandates that meetings of elected officials– such as City Council– or of those appointed by elected officials– such as the Planning Commission– must be open to the public.
"The dichotomy," explains Marie Everett, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, "is if the subcommittee is created by staff people– if the city manager says, 'I need a citizen advisory board,' that's not public under FOIA. The thinking is that [the issue] will get to a public body eventually."
Such was the explanation Wheeler says he received– that the Hillsdale Steering Committee was appointed by the city's Neighborhood Development, not City Council– and so it fell into the nonpublic realm.
Neither Wheeler nor Collins are quite buying that legal explanation.
Wheeler points out that similar committees made up of elected officials and citizens, such as the Eastern Connector Steering Committee, had never denied him access.
Both City Councilor Kevin Lynch and Albemarle Supervisor David Slutzky sit on the Hillsdale committee. "Our expectation is that steering committee meetings involving elected officials and appointed citizens should be open," Wheeler says.
"By law, they may not be," he acknowledges. "But our community has a high expectation of open meetings. I don't care who appointed the committee. Sunshine should be welcome. I think it would be wise for the city to embrace transparency."
In Wheeler's case, committee members voted to let him stay. "The fact I had to worry about that creates a barrier that I have to get permission every time," says Wheeler. "I do think staff meetings are different, and I don't expect them to be public. But this is a major road project that has a website."
Collins is still steamed that his meeting on the Meadowcreek Parkway, which he attended as a "consulting party" representing STAMP– Sensible Alternatives to the Meadowcreek Parkway– was held without the public and press: the president of the neighborhood association for North Downtown, Colette Hall, and a Daily Progress reporter were not allowed to attend. Says Collins, "That's too highhanded."
"Angela Tucker, who knows me quite well, would not let me in," says Hall. "I'm not some kook off the street."
Hall notes that she's attended 9 of 11 Meadowcreek Parkway steering committee meetings, which are public, unlike the Hillsdale meetings.
She lists four reasons she feels it was "unreasonable" that she was not allowed to stay at the meeting: "I wasn't asking to speak; I was only collecting information. Second, I'm president of the North Downtown Association, and this will impact our neighborhood. Third, this is being built with state and federal funds. I'm a taxpayer. Why is this a secret meeting? And fourth, the majority of these historic resources are in the public domain."
Tucker points out that it was the first time these groups had sat down together, and there's a danger in releasing information about challenging and complex projects such as the parkway that hasn't been carefully thought out: "It can be unnecessarily confusing."
Collins also objects to the format of a November 1 public forum on the Meadowcreek Parkway interchange held at the Albemarle County Office Building. Citizens could view the two alternatives for the interchange and submit comments through November 13, which Collins denounces as "part of a concerted effort to avoid attention to the opponents of the road/interchange" who contend that parkway has been illegally segmented to avoid federal law.
"He wanted a podium-style meeting so he could share his views in a public way," says Tucker. She adds that the public comments would be published and available.
Councilor Kevin Lynch attended both nonpublic meetings– although he arrived late and missed Wheeler's and Collins' disagreements with Tucker– and he explains that some meetings, especially those trying to obtain rights of way, require some discretion.
Some Hillsdale Steering Committee meetings have been related to property owners willing to donate rights of way that are contingent on the alignment of the road.
"That's a very small percentage," he says. "I'm not sure either of these two meetings that was the case."
The public's desire to speak at meetings has been a concern for staff, says Lynch. "I don't mind staying an extra 30 minutes," he says, but for people appointed to serve on nonpublic committees, there is a time for public comment later on.
"If there's not a compelling reason, I would err on the side of the public being there," says Lynch. "I think maybe staff has erred on the side of caution."
At the December 3 meeting, City Council voiced support of allowing citizens to watch meetings such as the one out of which Colette Hall was booted.
'I think given that Council stated we believe how committee meetings should be run, that should be a pretty unambiguous message to staff," says Lynch.
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government's Everett has one other suggestion for citizens who find the door slammed in their faces at nonpublic meetings: The records of the meetings are public. "You can always make FOIA requests of their agenda or records," she says.