HMI closes meetings to public

Historic Manassas Inc. runs the city’s visitor bureau, markets the virtues of its downtown and organizes major city events.

But now the 17-year-old nonprofit, which receives a significant portion of its funding from the city of Manassas, says it wants to keep the public and news media out of its monthly board meetings.

HMI’s board voted Tuesday to keep members of the general public, including reporters, out of its meetings unless they are invited.

Although HMI’s decision to hold closed-door meetings is legal, some worry it could draw suspicion to the board’s intentions and its commitment to the city’s welfare. Yet Randy Frostick, HMI’s president, said he thinks the move is justified.

“We are a private nonprofit corporation,” Frostick said. “And as such, we are not a public body. We do not need to have the press at our meetings.”

Frostick said board meetings were always invitation-only affairs. Until Tuesday, the board met in a second-floor conference room at City Hall. But Frostick plans for it to meet at his law firm’s downtown offices from now on.

Robert Browne, a lawyer who sat on the board a few years ago, doesn’t remember public access to the City Hall meetings ever being an issue.

“I don’t remember anyone from the public ever stopping by,” he said.

Even though HMI may have the law on its side, the organization risks making its actions seem questionable, said Dick Hammerstrom, a news editor at The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, who serves as chairman of the Virginia Press Association’s committee on freedom of information issues.

“Anytime an organization, even a nonprofit one, is doing work that is dealing with the public in an extensive manner, it is beneficial for them to be as open as possible,” he said.

Many nonprofits hold their board meetings in public, following the same rules as governmental bodies, said Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

“They build more public trust and support for their activities,” he said.

Virginia law states the meetings of any public body, including organizations and corporations “supported wholly or principally by public funds,” should be open to the general public, unless the meeting concerns specific issues such as the hiring and firing of personnel and legal matters.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council recently defined “principally” as being more than two-thirds of an organization’s revenue.

Tricia Davis, HMI’s executive director, said the organization received 48 percent of its funds from the city this year, although documents obtained by The Manassas Journal Messenger and Potomac News suggest the percentage may be closer to 60 percent.

The city reported giving HMI $154,000 for the present fiscal year, which ends July 1. That amount is almost 60 percent of the $258,893 in revenue listed in HMI’s budget report for the same period of time.

In addition, HMI has been receiving $185,000 per year in city funds for managing the Loy E. Harris Pavilion, an amount not included in its general revenue. The City Council voted Monday to take management of the pavilion away from HMI.

City Manager Lawrence Hughes does not view HMI as being “principally” supported by the city. But the organization’s role is invaluable, he said.

“If HMI wasn’t here or active in Old Town, we would want to create something very much like it, because of the events and activities they conduct,” he said.

Mayor Marvin L. Gillum was surprised to learn that HMI is holding its meetings in private.

“I’ll check into it,” he said Wednesday.

Staff writer Chris Newmarker can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 119.

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