We Think: Digital Backroom Politics

We Think: Digital Backroom Politics

September 12, 2016.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors returned from its summer recess and promptly turned down a motion by Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) to prohibit texting among Board members during public meetings of the body.  The effort was quickly silenced by a superseding motion to table the matter indefinitely. The motion prevailed on a vote of 5-3-1, with chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) and supervisors Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) and Volpe voting nay, and supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) abstaining.

In our view, the board’s majority got it wrong and has announced to the world that digital backroom politics is okay in Loudoun County.

By its action, the board has delivered a hard slap in the face of transparency in government.  In this day and age of public cynicism about government and digital communications, and when technology is outpacing the law, the original motion ought to have been given serious attention. Instead, Loudoun was treated to the majority of supervisors acting hastily to make a legitimate issue go away.

We heard it said by one board member that his text messages are available if citizens wish to make a FOIA request, but that can take a long time to complete, may be costly, and is a hardly a salve to the public’s right to know what their elected officials are doing in real time while considering matters in a public forum.

Plainly, the board’s action puts the convenience and interests of supervisors ahead of the public’s.

Supervisor Volpe explained the genesis of her motion, and told the Tribune she continues to oppose allowing the board to have “a meeting within a meeting” where “discussions are happening that the public is not privy to.”

We wish all Volpe’s colleagues felt the same way and would take steps to avoid even the appearance of private, secret communications.

Loudoun would be better served by a good faith effort to prohibit text messaging between and among board members regarding any matter on the agenda while a meeting is underway.  It’s a low bar, and still gives supervisors the opportunity to communicate with each other on breaks as well as on unrelated matters.

And we won’t have to wonder whether the public business of the board is being conducted in secret.