Last spring the Prince William County Board of Supervisors met secretly with officials of the Marriott Corp. to try to persuade them to locate a food distribution center in the county.
The proposed site, a 112-acre industrial park, borders a quiet subdivision, and when neighborhood groups found out about the meeting they were enraged.
"That is the worst thing they could have done, taking a developer into the back room to meet on such a controversial issue," said Andree McCarty, a civic activist. "They should have met in the open."
McCarty's protests, however, got nowhere. Although Virginia has had an open-meeting law on the books for 12 years, Prince William County Attorney Terry Emerson argues that the board can meet in executive session with anyone it wants.
The protest and the response were not unusual. Secret meetings such as the one in Prince William are held routinely by local governments throughout Virginia. Because the state's open-meeting law is riddled with what critics say are gaping loopholes, controversial issues are often settled in private, away from the scrutiny of taxpayers and the press.
Here are some of the actions that have occurred in the past year behind closed doors in Northern Virginia:
The Alexandria School Board agreed to hire Robert Peebles, a Connecticut educator, as that city's $55,000-a-year school superintendent.
The Arlington County Board rejected a Manhattan developer's request to convert part of the sprawling Arlington Towers apartment complex in Rosslyn to a hotel.
The Prince William School Board held two sessions to discuss a special audit that revealed mismanagement in the school budget that resulted in a $3 million shortfall.
The Fairfax County School Board slipped off to the side of a school cafeteria after its annual principal's dinner to discuss the volatile issue of school closings.
A parents' group filed suit against the Fairfax board, charging that the meeting was illegal and last month a Virginia judge chided the board for violating the "spirit" of the law by holding the secret meeting.
Some local officials say that violations of the open-meeting law are frequent in Northern Virginia even though the region prides itself on having more "open" government than the rest of the state.
"There's a tendency to discuss matters in executive session that shouldn't be," said Fairfax County Supervisor Audrey Moore, who last year walked out of an executive session to protest what she considered to be an improper discussion of employe pay raises and possible pay raises for board members.
Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity and others defend such closed meetings. "The reason for an executive session is not to keep things secret, it's to protect the public," Herrity said.
But according to one respected Virginia political observer, Herrity's statement reflects a long-standing political tradition in Virginia: government by one's betters.
"In Virginia, government has always been cloaked with this code of gentlemanly conduct under which leaders say, 'Leave the driving to us, we've taken on the burden of government, so what we do is our business'," said Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia. "Secrecy is a natural extension of that code, because the belief is that secrecy doesn't matter because no gentleman would ever cheat another."
Although Virginia has a stronger aristocratic tradition than either Maryland or the District, the same controversy over secreacy in local government is played out there -- and elsewhere.
"A lot of governments have been operating away from the public virtually forever," said Janet Studley, general counsel to a subcommittee of the Senate Governmental Operations Committee."Many are very happy in their anonymity because it reduces their accountability," said Studley, who helped draft the federal governmenths three-year-old "sunshine" law, as open meeting laws are often called.
"The paternalistic attitude -- that we who govern know best -- is very common," she said. "In reality the most important function of open-meeting laws is that they dispel the appearance of corruption. That's what really undermines government the most, because it gives people the impression that decisions are being made in smoke-filled rooms, even if they're not."
Going into executive sessions is relatively easy in Maryland. An open-meeting law enacted in the early 1970s includes a "catch-all" provision that permits a closed meeting on any topic if two-thirds of the officials vote to close it, according to Assistant Attorney General Dennis Sweeney.
Any Maryland resident may challenge the legality of a closed meeting in court, but if the citizen loses he could have to pay the government's costs in fighting the case, Sweeney said. "That certainly would keep most people from going to court," he said.
The D.C. Code requires that any votes or actions by the city council be taken in public but council rules permit executive sessions without specifying which topics may be discussed.
Virginia law also permits secret discussion of personnel matters involving individual employes and consultation with staff members about "actual or potential litigation." Also permitted are "discussions concerning a prospective business or industry where no previous announcement has been made of the business or industry's interest in locating in the community," the provision Prince William officials cited in the Marriott case.
A bigger loophole, say some in Virginia, is the so-called "cocktail party exception," which essentially permits discussion of public issues by officials who meet by chance.
Violations of the Virginia statute call for civil fines of $25 to $500, but the assistant state attorney general responsible for monitoring the act says he cannot recall of a public official who has ever been charged -- much less fined -- for breaking the law. "In Virginia you're dealing with public officials who usually at least attempt to comply," said the lawyer, James Moore.
Most Virginia officials chafe at the idea that they should be forced to hold all their discussions in public.
"The idea that board members cannot meet and talk about something is a little bit ridiculous," said Arlington County Board member John W. Purdy. "It's going to happen anyway,"said Purdy who added, "I don't hesitate to talk to any board member about something if the occasion arises."
As for secret meetings between elected officials and their lawyers Purdy said: "It's in the public interest for the governing body to have advice from its lawyer just as a developer will have private advice."
Many citizen activists disagree. "I think some of the advice from the county attorney should be made in the open," said Louise Chestnut, an Arlington resident who has often opposed the county board on land use issues. "The public has no way of knowing the quality of advice the board gets."
Some citizens groups and officials of the Virginia Freedom of Information Council, a private group, say that the law is weak.
"The legal exception (allowing private meetings about "legal" issues) can be stretched to the limit," said Robert Hughes, a professor of communications at Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University. "Just about anything a local government discusses could be a topic of potential litigation and, under the law, they can adjourn to discuss those things in private," said Hughes, chairman of the information council.
In addition to subjects of "actual or potential litigation," local governments can discuss in secret such volatile local issues as zoning, consideration of bids by competing cable television franchises and the sale or purchase of property. Formal votes on the issues have to be taken in public although the subject of those votes is often announced in one or two cryptic words and may not be explained later.
Some officials, including Alison May, immediate past chairman of the Alexandria School Board, say they find the law too restrictive.
"There are times when the board should go out of sight to discuss issues which are ready for public discussion, but need to be talked about," said May. "Frequently that cannot be done in public because the press is there."
Former Alexandria City Council member Ellen Pickering said that during her three-year tenure on the council the legal and land exceptions were often improperly invoked when the council went into executive session.
"Some of the things elected officials confront are hard to discuss in public," Pickering said. "You have to be a solid and mature person to be able to discuss some things in public and not all of us are."