RICHMOND — One of Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s signature policy initiatives — reforming state government — has been taking shape this summer out of public view and with no input from Democrats.
Committees that are to make recommendations to the Governor’s Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring began meeting in private two months ago, a practice that some legal experts say violates Virginia’s open-meeting laws.
Each of the committees — called work groups by the governor’s office — includes McDonnell staffers and at least three commission members. But none of the four elected Democrats appointed by McDonnell to the blue-ribbon commission were named to any of the work groups.
Several members of the public have complained to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council about the work groups since realizing the panels had met this summer without providing public notice.
Maria Everett, executive director of the FOIA Council, said that if three or more members of the commission are meeting about government reform, then “it’s turned into a commission meeting.”
“They are in violation of the law,’’ Everett said. “Politically, it smells bad. So much of this is public relations. The idea that the government reform commission is not transparent, it raises questions.”
Virginia law states that, in general, public bodies must post meeting notices in public places, such as buildings on Capitol Square, and on the online Commonwealth Calendar if more than three members are gathering. The commission is considered a public body because the state funds its $15,000 annual budget.
The commission had a previous set of committees, which are no longer meeting, that did advertise their meetings and post meeting notices on the widely used General Assembly calendar and on the commission’s Web site.
McDonnell’s counselor, Jasen Eige, said in an interview Thursday that the work groups are not subject to Virginia law because they were formed by the governor and not by the commission.
“I think they’re playing games with you and the public in Virginia,’’ said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors government ethics issues. “It’s one of the states that has a strong open-meeting law. They’re trying to find ways to go around it. It’s frustrating. . . . It doesn’t sound like reform.’’
The work groups are charged with providing ideas to the commission, the governor’s staff and the Cabinet secretaries.
“That’s our sole interest, producing good ideas, not adhering to a certain way of doing things,’’ McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said.
McDonnell, who took office in January 2010, has made government transparency a priority. His handpicked 31-member reform commission has followed his lead, with members speaking often about the need for a more open and user-friendly state government.
Martin said McDonnell is being punished for being transparent enough to tell the public about the existence of work groups, something he said would not have happened in other administrations.
“We have attempted to bring in new voices and perspectives to our policy development process,’’ Martin said. “More voices are being heard. More opinions are being considered. That kind of transparency can be difficult for some to properly conceptualize, as it is a relatively new way of doing business at the government level.”
Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Offices and a commission member, said he asked not to be assigned to a work group because personal commitments did not leave him enough time. But, he said, the meetings should be public.
“That should be noticed and so forth,’’ Pattison said. “I was wondering if it was an oversight. It’s a significant oversight.”
Alicia Hughes — an independent member of the Alexandria City Council who serves on the commission and a work group — said she was surprised that the governor’s office had determined that the meetings were exempt from the state’s open-meeting law. Hughes, who ran for council with Republican support, said she plans to speak to the administration about it. “That is not something I was aware of,’’ she said.
Last year, the commission released its first set of recommendations 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.
During its first year, the bulk of the commission’s work has been done in committee, although the full commission has debated and voted on the recommendations.
Some of the proposals have been implemented by the governor, and others were passed by the General Assembly this year. The commission's most controversial recommendation — to sell the state’s 350 liquor stores — died after McDonnell spent months lobbying lawmakers and residents to support getting out of the liquor business.
The commission chairman, Fred Malek, founder of Thayer Capital Partners and a major Republican donor, did not return a call for comment, and he declined, through the governor’s office, to comment.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who serves as commission vice chairman and sits on one of the work groups, said he does not know why the committee structure changed. “Call the governor,’’ he said. “It’s his commission.’’
Several commission members interviewed this week said they received notice in early July from Jeff Palmore, McDonnell’s deputy counselor and the commission’s executive director, about the new work groups.
The governor’s office declined to release a full list of members who have participated in work group meetings, although it did provide the names of commission members who are serving.
“They are ad hoc and oftentimes consist of those who can attend on a certain day or who have a specific interest in perhaps one specific item of discussion,’’ Martin said. “They are designed to produced new ideas and not get bogged down in process, and that means they must be elastic and informal.”
Three Democratic legislators — Sens. Mary Margaret Whipple (Arlington) and L. Louise Lucas (Portsmouth) and Del. Robert H. Brink (Arlington) — serve on the commission, but they were not assigned to any work groups, although at least one asked to be included.
Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, the fourth elected Democrat on the commission, is serving as an adviser to all five work groups, but he and his staff had not been notified about meeting times, said Bryan Pennington, Norfolk’s director of intergovernmental relations.
Bill Leighty, who has worked for both Democratic and Republican governors, serves on the natural resources work group.
Whipple called it “very disappointing” that commission members did not receive notice of the work groups’ participants or meeting schedule.
Brian Coy, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said: “Holding secret Republicans-only meetings outside the view of Virginia taxpayers further proves that Bob McDonnell’s government reform commission is not about accountability and transparency in government; it’s about furthering his own political standing with right-wing donors and ideologues.’’