Local Commentary

Editorial: Council Doing Its Due Diligence

Much behind the scenes, in a series of what has developed into an emotionally-draining marathon of closed door sessions of the Falls Church City Council in recent weeks, the seven-member Falls Church Council has found itself in the throes of an unexpectedly difficult recruiting and vetting process for a new City Attorney here.

Of course, and rightfully so, the News-Press is basing what it’s said here so far solely on the basis of elementary conclusions drawn from the scant amount of information available in the public domain about this effort. This is one of those areas in which state and federal law grants relevant public bodies ample protection from public scrutiny and for good reasons. In the cases of negotiations over the purchase or sale of assets like land, for example, to allow for the public to have an “in” on the process naturally undermines the negotiating position of the government, which will always have its hand tipped by public scrutiny to its disadvantage.

Still, in the more recent years’ heightened concern for the “public’s right to know” the affairs of its government, so-called “sunshine laws,” which permit such things as the public’s exercise of a codified right to “freedom of information,” so well known in government circles that the acronym, “FOIA” (Freedom of Information Act), is now used most often as a verb (i.e. “He FOIAed that document,” meaning a formal petition for access to a government document was submitted) have circumscribed the government’s right to proprietary information more and more narrowly.

A public body can meet on matters of government business only when it has been advertised in advance that it intends to do so. At no time can more than two members of any official public body meet together to discuss the business of that body without it being advertised in advance. Moreover, the discussion of any non-public information can be undertaken only after a public vote in favor has been taken by a majority of the body before entering into a non-public, or “closed,” meeting. That vote must include a public summary of the general topic of the closed meeting. Then, upon emerging from such a closed meeting, the body must vote in public again to affirm that everything which took place in the closed session was, indeed, in accordance with the parameters spelled out going in and that any formal actions taken in that meeting were, in fact, agreed to by the majority.

“Personnel matters” also fall among the very narrow range of subjects concerning which the public body is granted a veil of secrecy to conduct frank and thorough fact-finding and deliberations. That’s what’s going on now in the search for a new City Attorney, which is technically one of the only hires, in addition to the City Clerk and City Manager, for which the City Council is solely responsible.

So, without knowing a hoot about what’s transpiring in all the recent closed sessions, we applaud the City Council for its diligence in the current matter.