A curtain of secrecy was brought down yesterday on the newly open atmosphere of the General Assembly.
The Senate General Laws Committee held the first closed meeting of this 6-week-old session. The doors were closed to the public and press when the committee, headed by Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), began what is new process this year - detailed review of gubernatorial appointments.
The review process had been proposed by Sen. Joseph T. Fitzpatrick (D-Norfolk) who, Republicans point out, is chairman of the Democratic Party state committee. The appointments being reviewed are those of Republican Gov. John N. Dalton.
Brault's committee decided to hold a closed session when it met last Friday during an informal gathering around the majority leader's desk. There were two dissenting votes, both those of Republicans. Voting no were Sen. William A. Truban (R-Woodstock), who is his party's minority leader, and Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria).
According to state law, a legislative committee, like other public bodies, must vote to hold a closed session in a public meeting. Meetings held in the Senate chamber, such as last Friday's, are not, according to state law, public because while the press can attend them, they are not open to the general public.
"Everyone from the press was at Friday's meeting," said Brault, who has been a staunch supporter of the principal of open meetings. He also pointed out that before yesterday's meeting began, he asked if any committee member wanted to reconsider the Friday vote, and none did.
Immediate but polite opposition to the closed meeting was registered by the executive director of Common Cause of Virginia, Judy Goldberg.
Goldberg said "I respectfully urge you to set a further precedent by conducting your interviews in open session. The public has a need and a right to know and to hear discussed the qualifications of those entrusted with the day-to-day running of your government."
Goldberg proceeded cautiously because there are a couple of bills in the General Assembly that would extend the Freedom of Information Act into other areas, and she was not eager to alienate potential supporters.
While Brault's committee was the first to meet in secret on the governor's appointments, it apparently won't be the only one to do so. At least one other committee - Rehabilitation and Social Services, headed by Sen. Lawrence D. Wilder (D-Richmond) - has voted to hold closed meetings on the appointments, according to members.
Brault indicated that there may be an overall change in policy. "With all the interest that was generated by today's (closed) meeting," he said "this is an area we will look at again."
In the past, gubernatorial appointments have been handled by the Privileges and Elections Committee, headed by Sen. Omer L. Hirst (D-Fairfax). The committee never interviewed the appointees. Instead a subcommitee confined itself to looking at written biographical information.
Sen. Mitchell, interviewed after yesterday's meeting (which he attended briefly because it was in conflict with another session he had to attend) said: "I see no reason to hold a closed meeting on the appointments."
While he said he in general supported a more thorough review, he asked, "Does anyone really think that if a Democrat had been elected governor, the Democratic state chairman would propose a review process?"
Sen. Herbert H. Bateman (R-Newport News) said: "I can't argue against this, but I think we are sailing off to some uncharted seas, without any standards."
Hirst said he hopes the committees can develop some expertise in such reviews, "but what we're doing is a good beginning."
In other action, a measure aimed at giving home-owners real estate tax relief by allowing localities to tax residential units at a lower rate than commercial property wascarried over by a House committee yesterday.