A quote in Saturday's Extra was incorrectly attributed to Manassas's Assistant City Attorney Martin Crim. The statement--that a mistake had been made regarding the Freedom of Information Act and that a session would be held with the City Council to review Virginia law--should have been attributed to City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes. (Published 10/06/1999)

Manassas officials are moving to correct procedures after the City Council found that some government meetings were being held without prior public notice--in effect, making them closed meetings.

Advisory committees of the Manassas Regional Airport Commission were holding sessions without telling residents, a violation of the Virginia open meetings law, said Martin Crim, assistant city attorney.

Geoffrey Peterson, president of Rising Phoenix Aviation Inc., in Manassas Park, in recent weeks has raised several allegations against the commission. On Monday, he accused City Council members on the executive committee of the airport commission of breaking the law. And he was right.

"It seems there was a mix-up," said City Manager Lawrence Hughes. "It wasn't done intentionally."

But regardless of the intentions, the law has been clear for almost a decade, said Forrest Landon, executive director of the Roanoke-based Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

"There were no changes to the law, just changes to the way it was explained so these guys should have known what the law is by now," he said. "It's been pretty clear for a while what the law is, and that's that they have to post notices when they're meeting."

But Landon acknowledged that despite the changes in language, "people keep goofing up because it's a hard law to understand.

"We're trying to make it so darn clear so that even if the city attorney is out, everyone will be able to know exactly what the law states," he said, adding that other cities and counties in the state have had similar problems in recent months.

The revised law, which took effect July 1, still led to confusion, Hughes said. "We're going to try to fix this so that it doesn't happen again," he said.

Hughes said a Web site that will offer information on city government will also include postings of all public meetings, an effort that Landon applauded.

"That's an example of going beyond the minimum requirement of just posting a notice," he said.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that a public body--such as the airport commission or its subcommittees--"give notice of the date, time and location of its meetings by placing the notice in a prominent public location at which notices are regularly posted. . . ." It also requires that the notice be posted at least three days before the scheduled meeting.

Peterson, who recently accused Airport Manager Bruce Lawson of denying him the opportunity to lease space from the airport terminal and demanded that Lawson be forced to resign, said that if he had known meetings were being held--meetings where leases were being discussed and approved--he would have been at the front of the line, "hoping to get mine approved, too."

Lawson said that although no one makes formal appearances before the leasing committee (there are several subcommittees of the airport commission), the committee does review lease proposals once Lawson has reviewed them. A recommendation is then forwarded to the full airport commission.

Commission members said there was never any intent to privatize the meetings, though Peterson accused them of such.

"This is something that shouldn't have happened, but it did," Crim said. "And we're going to go over the law, review it with everyone to make sure it doesn't happen again."