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By Invitation Only

Mayor Wilder has committees studying nearly all facets of city government — behind closed doors.

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First came planning committees charged with promoting efficiency, reviewing procurement policies and evaluating the city attorney. In the first month of Wilder's reign, he appointed members to the Regional Cooperation Planning Committee and the Human Services Committee. The 13-member Shockoe Bottom Advisory Committee followed in May, the eight-member Schools Oversight Committee in July, the Commission on City Jail Issues in August, the nine-member Committee on the Performing Arts in November, and most recently, the nine-member Neighborhood Roundtable in February.

The mayor typically charges each of these committees with a mission that might be specific (such as producing a report on conditions at the city jail) or more general (advising the mayor on education policy).

What concerns some, however, is that the mayor's committees very rarely hold meetings that are open to the public, the media or even elected officials. And the mayor's office doesn't post public notices of the meetings. Last summer, when Councilwoman Kathy Graziano requested notice for the next Shockoe Bottom Advisory Committee —their charge was to evaluate development proposals, including a baseball park — she was informed the meetings weren't open to the public.

A Freedom of Information Act request for all public notices of meetings of the mayor's committees returned just three notices — all for introductory, not working, meetings of three groups. And they were media releases, not public notices.

Since taking office, Mayor Wilder has emphasized the open nature of his administration. "We have no hidden agenda. Anything relative to our budget is out there," Wilder said at the April 10 City Council meeting — an apparent response to criticism that he hasn't released details about his schools plan.

But by law, neither Wilder nor the committees' members have to invite anyone to their meetings. Unlike City Council, which must publicly advertise similar commissions and committees it establishes three days prior to meeting, Wilder is not considered a "public body," as defined in the state code relating to the Freedom of Information Act.

Because most of Wilder's committees are composed of private citizens (not government employees), and because he doesn't pay them, those meetings are exempt from FOIA, explains Maria Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. Reports the committees produce, however, do fall under FOIA, Everett says, and must be made available for public inspection. The Mayor's Office typically distributes committees' reports to the media and makes them available on the city's Web site.

Since the mayor can't do anything unilaterally — City Council must vote on all proposed ordinances — the matters discussed at his committees eventually become open for public inspection when they're brought before the council, Everett explains.

At the same time, she says, it wouldn't hurt to open the meetings. "Since it does have something to do with the public business," Everett says, "then the question is: Why not? What's the harm?"

There's harm in keeping them closed, says Don Harrison, a well-known blogger (www.saverichmond.com) who often writes about the oft-debated future of the city's planned performing arts center.

The mayor's performing arts committee includes few people who have actual expertise in performing arts venues, Harrison asserts. And although the committee's most recent meeting, on April 5, was "supposedly open to the public," he says, notice was given only a few days in advance. And the notice appeared in the form of a newspaper story; it wasn't posted on the city's Web site nor at City Hall. At the meeting, the committee's members didn't discuss any details about their findings.

The committee chairman, Robert J. Grey Jr., has said Richmond citizens would get a chance to share their opinions, Harrison says, but the committee is issuing its first report May 1 and has yet to designate any time at any of its meetings for public comment. "So what, we got to go over to their house?" Harrison asks.

John Gerner, a leisure industry consultant who has worked with many high-profile venues, offered his expertise to the performing arts committee. While the committee members declined to have him meet with them officially, Gerner says he's discussed the arts center plans with Grey one-on-one. "I think there's been a lot more participation than there appears to be formally," Gerner says.

But Harrison believes experts like Gerner and Joel Katz, former executive director of the Carpenter Center, should have been appointed to the group in the first place. "The fact that you couldn't get a citizen like that on the committee tells you what kind of a committee it is," he says.

"I really want to support what Wilder's doing," Harrison adds. "I just don't understand these committees."

Since February, School Board Chairman David Ballard has been trying to gain admission to a meeting of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's education advisory committee. But that committee has closed its meetings to outsiders, including Ballard and city schools Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman.

Nothing personal, says committee Chairman Bob Holsworth, who is also director of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The committee has been engaged in "self-education," Holsworth says, and wasn't ready to open its discussion to anyone else. "He'll be invited at an appropriate time," Holsworth said a few weeks ago.

The appropriate time turned out to be Wednesday, April 19. And it became more than Ballard had bargained for. The night before the 8 a.m. meeting, Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman notified reporters and TV crews. He had asked City Council members to attend the meeting at council's April 10 meeting. Council members, school board members and city officials all showed.

Still, there was no public notice posted for the meeting, not on the city's Web site or in the newspaper. No members of the public knew the meeting was open unless they happened to walk by the VCU meeting room that morning.

The mayor and Holsworth peppered Ballard and Superintendent Jewell-Sherman with questions about the amount the city spends on its students. In 2004-05, $12,201 in city, state and federal funds was spent on each pupil, which is $3,000 more per student than the state average and $3,125 more than Norfolk, a statistically similar district.

Ballard strove to defend the numbers, saying the city has a higher-than-average proportion of poor and special-education students, as well as more school buildings to maintain. But it was a classic Wilder media barrage. The next day's headlines talked about the panel's findings on per-pupil spending — numbers that have long been available on the state Department of Education Web site.

Paul Goldman, the mayor's longtime associate and former senior policy adviser, now a radio talk show host, says it's obvious why the mayor has kept the committee's doors closed until the grand reveal: "It's a power struggle," he says. "Shouldn't really surprise anybody."

In politics, Goldman says, knowledge is power. When the School Board spends its energies trying to find out what Wilder's committee is up to, he says, instead of putting forth its own proposals, they end up looking bad. "It's like ice hockey," Goldman says. "You can play good defense, but you're not going to score."

At the end of the education committee meeting, Ballard approached Holsworth and asked if he could attend the next meeting.

"I think I'd prefer to be with ourselves," Holsworth said.

"How about the meeting after that?" Ballard pressed.

"I'd think that'd be fine," Holsworth said, a bit hesitantly. S



News Editor Scott Bass contributed reporting to this story.

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