The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors apparently has come up with a way to meet privately without violating either the Virginia Freedom of Information Act or a court injunction barring most closed-door meetings.
The solution: two-member committees.
Under the law, anytime three or more supervisors meet together the gathering must be public, unless the board has voted in public to hold a closed-door session. Even then the supervisors are supposed to discuss only certain subjects, such as personnel matters and legal cases.
The issue of open meetings has been a sensitive one in Fairfax ever since the board was accused of violating the state law by holding an unannounced meeting in a supervisors' office, at which board members agreed to redraw the boundaries of their election districts. A circuit court judge later ruled that the meeting violated the law and warned the supervisors to adhere to it strictly in the future.
Supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth, a Democrat from the Mount Vernon District, surprised some of her colleagues Monday when she said that the Human Services subcommittee, on which she serves, has been and would remain a two-person subcommittee "because of the sensitive matters we discuss." Her comment was the first public acknowledgement by a supervisor that any committee's size had been restricted to avoid opening meetings.
Duckworth didn't elaborate at the time, but she said yesterday in an interview she believed it would be easier for her committee to work in private.
". . . The problem is we'd have to go in and out of executive session" to comply with the open meeting law and that makes it "difficult to approach some things," she said. "This just seems a simpler way of doing things."
Supervisor Marie B. Travesky, a Republican from Springfield, who along with Duckworth sits on the two-member Board Procedures subcommittee, said yesterday: "I know Duckworth said that but I don't think that's what she meant."
Only two of the board's 11 subcommittees -- the Human Services and Board Procedures panels -- have two members, and Travesky said they traditionally have been two-member subcommittees. The board cannot find other supervisors willing to serve on those two bodies, Travesky said.
Duckworth said the Human Services subcommittee handles mental health programs and other county social services and often has to deal with individual cases or sensitive issues involving contracts and salaries. The Board Procedures subcommittee often handles salaries and matters involving the operation of the board, she said.
"And most--I'd say 99 percent--of what we discuss on the Human Services subcommittee comes before the Board of Supervisors anyway," said Duckworth.
Travesky said the public is always welcome to attend the subcomittee meetings but the subcommittees still vote to go into executive session if certain material is to be discussed, even if there are only two members serving.
The supervisors have canceled their scheduled public sessions on the budget this week and opted to hold individual meetings with County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert.
During the early 1970s, the board agreed to hold public working sessions on the budget in its effort to open up the budget process. But Lambert said the sessions proved unwieldy and it was more efficient for him to meet with the supervisors one or two at a time. Lambert said that the individual sessions were not an attempt to avoid public scutiny and said the public would be welcomed at any budget meetings.