A halt to nonpublic meetings of McDonnell’s commission work groups

September 7, 2011

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s office said Wednesday that it will no longer allow work groups of governor’s commissions to meet without public notice if three or more members are present.

McDonnell’s lawyers acknowledged for the first time that private meetings of committees — called work groups by the governor’s office — violate state law if three or more members attend and discuss commission business.

The decision came after The Washington Post reported Saturday that committees that are expected to make recommendations to the Governor’s Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring have been meeting out of public view and without input from Democrats for two months.

But on Wednesday, staffers said that happened only once and that they were unaware that it violated state law. Each of the five work groups have at least three commission members, but staffers said that all members did not usually show up for meetings.

Meanwhile, Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria) has asked Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) to investigate whether McDonnell’s administration violated Virginia law when committees of the government reform panel held meetings without public notice.

“When a commission charged with increasing government transparency and accountability conducts its business in secret and in possible violation of the law, these are serious allegations,” Englin said in a letter. “The attorney general should be the chief watchdog on behalf of taxpayers and citizens, and I urge him to investigate these allegations to ensure the bipartisan transparency and accountability that Virginians expect and deserve.”

Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein did not respond to a message for comment.

Taylor Thornley, a spokeswoman for McDonnell, called Englin’s letter “a political stunt.”

“Governor McDonnell has created a number of commissions to allow the public to participate in the policy development process — an unprecedented step to open up the policymaking process. We are aware of the law and have been complying with it,” she said.

McDonnell counselor Jasen Eige said last week that the work groups are not subject to state law because they were formed by the governor, not the commission. But on Wednesday, he said he agreed with other legal experts, including those at the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, that if at least three members discuss commission business, the meeting should be public.

He said they will either ensure that fewer than three members are present or advertise the meetings as directed by Virginia’s open-meetings law — with notices posted in physical places, such as buildings on Capitol Square, and on the online Commonwealth Calendar.

McDonnell (R), who took office in January 2010, has created several blue-ribbon commissions, including one focused on jobs and headed by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) and another on the military. Last week, he announced a new task force that would look for ways to diversify a state economy that relies heavily on federal contractors and the military.

In a July 5 e-mail to commission members, Jeff Palmore, executive director of the commission and McDonnell’s deputy counselor, wrote that the administration has used similar committees before this summer. “This model has been utilized by other commissions and found to be successful,” he wrote.

Palmore said Wednesday that the e-mail was intended to mean only that other commissions “were using flexible, informal work groups” — not that they were meeting without public notice. He said that at least one panel — the Governor’s Supplier Diversity Advisory Board — used work groups, but he did not know whether the meetings were public. McDonnell’s staffers said they did not know whether other commissions used work groups.

However, Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the work-group structure is irrelevant. “The key is whether they are open,” she said. “Are the people that are going to be affected by this at the table?”

The 31-member commission on government reform — one of McDonnell’s signature policy initiativesreleased its first set of recommendations last year to shrink government and make it more efficient, including allowing employees to work four days a week, consolidating accounting and payroll systems, and eliminating toll-free numbers. It considered abolishing the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council but abandoned that proposal after it drew criticism.

During its first year, the bulk of the commission’s work was done in committee, although the full commission debated and voted on the recommendations. The previous set of committees, which are no longer meeting, advertised their meetings and posted meeting notices on the widely used General Assembly calendar and on the commission’s Web site.

In July, McDonnell’s administration formed five work groups that include staffers and at least three commission members. None of the four elected Democrats appointed by McDonnell to the commission were named to any of the work groups.

Several members of the public complained last week to the FOIA Council and the Coalition for Open Government about the work groups after realizing that the panels had met this summer without providing public notice. Maria Everett, the council’s executive director, and Rhyne said meetings should be open if at least three members are present and conducting commission business.

The reform commission is considered a public body because the state funds its $15,000 annual budget.

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