Closed Session Cleaves Council Considering Courts
Fredericksburg's City Council narrowly approves a closed session to review plans for a new city court facility.
A closed session to review proposals for a new Fredericksburg court facility saw a City Council nearly evenly divided on issues of transparency and confidentiality last night.
In the end, the council voted four to three to review an analysis prepared by consulting firm Arcadis of the court facility proposals behind closed doors. Vice Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw, and councilors George Solley and Kerry Devine voted in favor of the closed session, councilors Fred Howe, Brad Ellis and Bea Paolucci voted against it. Mayor Thomas Tomzak cast the tie breaking vote to send the meeting into closed session.
Prior to the vote, City Attorney Kathleen Dooley advised the members of the City Council that publicizing the findings of Arcadis' analyses could damage the city's position at the bargaining table. Dooley said that such publicity would reveal the consultant's opinion of the various strengths and weaknesses of the proposals, potentially tipping the city's hand.
"If a contractor knew they were the most favored, it would embolden their bargaining strategy," Dooley told the City Council.
Dooley said that the analyses presented by Arcadis would go into detail about financial statements of the companies, information about claims and litigation pending against the companies, detailed project schedules and cost breakdowns for each project.
"Those are all confidential," said Dooley. "We have an obligation to maintain the confidentiality of those elements."
Ward 2 Councilor George Solley agreed, saying that the City Council needs to take this opportunity to learn more about the proposals behind closed doors to be able to later openly debate the proposals.
"I personally cannot see how this is keeping relevant information from the taxpayer," said Solley. "We will still be debating this information as we see it. We are not going to decide who is going to win a contract tonight. We are going to ask questions."
Vice Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw said that it was the responsibility of the council to use this authority to make big decisions like this.
"We owe it to the taxpayers and to the people who elected us to make significant decisions and to get the best deal possible, said Greenlaw. "At this point in the process we need to inform ourselves and we need to do so in a way that doesn't impede the future of this process."
Dooley also noted that the City Council has used closed sessions in the past to review public/private design build proposals in the past, citing a closed session held in July 2004 to review an analyses of proposals to build the Sophia Street Parking Garage.
Tomzak and At-Large Councilor Kerry Devine quickly noted that former city Councilor Matt Kelly was the one who made the motion to close that meeting from the public. Their remarks served to highlight a perceived double standard in Kelly's opinion of closed sessions. Kelly has been critical of the push to build a new city court facility and has called for the city council to hold more public deliberations on the court proposals.
Ward 3 Councilor Fred Howe, also a critic of the push to build a new court facility, said his opposition to the closed meetings was rooted in a desire for a more transparent process for the benefit of the public.
"At the end of the day, this is a public process, and we need to have the same transparency standards that we are demanding at the national level at the local level," said Howe.
Ward 1 Councilor Bea Paolucci and Ward 4 Councilor Brad Elliswere disappointed that the entire analyses was confidential, both wishing that a redacted version of Arcadis' analyses could be produced, one which protected the confidential elements of the bidding teams, and one for the public consumption.
"I believe this document should have been broken down with the financials separate so that it could be discussed in open session and the financials in closed session," said Paolucci.
Tomzak agreed with certain criticisms of the process surrounding the courthouse design bidding procedures.
"I am in contact every day with people who agree that we are doing the right process, this is a step in that process and it has been highly politicized, which is unfortunate, but we are prepared for that," said Tomzak. "The criticism that we are out in front of the public is a valid criticism."