When Michelle Davis-Younger is sworn in as mayor of the city of Manassas next month, David Farajollahi will be chosen to fill her seat on City Council.
For all of 2021, Farajollahi will be one of only six full-fledged members of council. His votes on critical issues before the city over the next year will count the same as those of Pamela Sebesky, Mark Wolfe and Tom Osina. Why is this significant, you ask? Because Sebesky, Wolfe and Osina all were elected by Manassas voters in November after a heated public campaign.
Farajollahi, meanwhile, was chosen by the current council members last week – behind closed doors.
This is no way a criticism of Farajollahi. He brings a new perspective to council and by all accounts will do a good job. But 15 other Manassas residents applied for the position. Three other residents were finalists. And the public will never know how the council reduced the field from 16 to four or why they selected Farajollahi to join them on the dais next year. Those decisions were made behind closed doors.
That would be appropriate if Farajollahi were applying to be city manager or fire chief or some other staff position. It is entirely inappropriate for a position that is typically elected by voters in an open, public process.
For the record, the Manassas council did nothing illegal in going behind closed doors to make its selection. Doing so is perfectly allowable under Virginia’s open-meetings law, known as the Freedom of Information Act. The act contains no fewer than 54 circumstances under which local and state governing bodies can meet behind closed doors.
The very first of those exceptions allows closed meetings for “…discussion, consideration, or interviews of prospective candidates for employment; assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining, or resignation of specific public officers, appointees, or employees of any public body…”
Note that the law does not require local governments to make these decisions behind closed doors; it just allows them to do so. There are many good reasons to make personnel decisions in private, not the least of which is to protect the identity of job applicants who may be employed elsewhere.
But we can think of no reason that justifies going into closed session to appoint someone to a position that is usually elected. In a time when citizens are suspicious of the government and the political process, re-creating the “smoke-filled backroom” does not increase trust.
To its credit, the Manassas council did interview the four finalists in open session, so at least city residents could hear the candidates’ ideas and positions on key issues. However, council did citizens a disservice by making its decision in private.
Virginia has one of the weakest open-meetings laws in the country, and this is a prime example of why we rank so poorly. Members of governing bodies who are usually elected by the public should be selected through a public process. Transparency equals trust.