Should mobile messages and emails between elected officials be considered “private”?

The Virginia Supreme Court is hearing a case this week about a vote to close down one of Fairfax County’s elementary schools. Parent Jill DeMello Hill has charged that, prior to the open meeting, elected officials who made the decision sent numerous emails which violate the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The Virginia FOIA requires such meetings to be open to the public, and Hill argues that the extensive emails sent between several of the officials constitute private deliberations that should qualify as a secret meeting.

Hill feels that many of the officials went into the meeting knowing how they were going vote, rather than deciding after discussion at the meeting itself. The open meeting should allow citizens to hear the deliberation. In Hill’s opinion, the “open” meeting was just a formality to ensure that the officials were abiding by the law at face value. The main provision of the Virginia FOIA at stake qualifies a secret meeting as any “informal assemblage” of three or more members of an elected body that is not announced and open to the public. One way for officials to circumvent this provision is to “respond to sender” on an email, rather than replying to all. Officials can then forward an entire chain between two members to other officials. The Virginia Supreme Court will decide whether this violates the “informal assemblage” stipulation.

In a brief from Fairfax County Public Schools, lawyers argue that ruling in favor of Hill would “undermine effective government.” The argument here is that the process would become so inefficient that the government itself would cease to function appropriately. The School Board insists that communication between officials outside public meetings is essential to elected officials properly representing their constituents. By banning outside communication, officials would be required to vote before hearing extensive deliberation, which could result in rushed and uninformed decisions.

What do you think? Should elected officials be able to communicate with one another about future decisions and issues outside of open meetings? Would this undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of American government? What is the proper balance of transparency?

Read the full article here.