Wednesday, October 31, 2007

October 31, 2007 Local Government: If Tennessee's "Sunshine Laws" Are Gutted

How about private meetings of government officials where decisions are made without the public or press around and then a public meeting where the votes are taken to make the private, backroom deals "official"?

If city, county, and school board officials get their way in weakening Tennessee's Sunshine Laws (Open Meetings and Public Records Acts), private meetings could be coming to a local government near you.

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal recently ran an excellent editorial on this topic as did the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

If the Tennessee General Assembly does change the Open Meetings Act to allow officials to meet secretly and privately-- in groups of "less than a quorum"-- what would this mean locally?

MORRISTOWN CITY COUNCIL: Up to three members of the Morristown City Council--one less than a quorum--could meet together secretly or with local power/money interests to deliberate, swap votes, and do whatever they want to do in reaching an agreement on how to vote at the "public" meeting. When the "public" vote is later taken at a "public" meeting of the council, it will all be a sham because the decision will have already been made by small groups of council members who have met in the dark, in the backroom, outside of the public's view.

HAMBLEN COUNTY COMMISSION: Up to seven members of the Hamblen County Commission--one less than a quorum--could meet together secretly or with local power/money interests to deliberate, swap votes, and do whatever they want to do in reaching an agreement on how to vote at the "public" meeting. When the "public" hearing or "public" vote is later taken at a "public" meeting, it will all be a sham because the decision will have already been made by small groups of commissioners who have met in the dark, in the backroom, outside of the public's view.

HAMBLEN COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD: Up to three members of the Hamblen County School Board---one less than a quorum---could meet together secretly or with local power/ money interests to deliberate, swap votes, and do whatever they want to do in reaching an agreement on how to vote at the "public" meeting. When the "public" vote is later taken at a "public" meeting, it will all be a sham because the decision will have already been made by board members who have met in the dark, in the backroom, outside of the public's view.

If they succeed in eliminating public oversight and ridding themselves of the disinfectant effect of Tennessee's Sunshine Laws, county commissioners, city council members, and school board members will jump at the opportunity to have secret meetings well before the "public" meeting---especially where important and controversial issues are concerned.

And if, by chance, a snag arises during the public meeting over a decision, the chairman can just ask for a short recess during which the officials can again meet in their little groups to have their "private" discussions about "public" business.

Why do local government officials want to gut the Open Meetings Act? The official line seems to be that government officials need freedom to deliberate in private so they can share information and get "special insight" into public business.

If local government officials think that secret, private meetings are good, why not just have one big private meeting of ALL commissioners, city councilmen, school board members. Now, THAT would really maximize insight and efficiency at the later public meeting!!!

It is obvious that local government officials simply aren't interested in open and accountable government and that they view public participation and comments as a nuisance. Local government officials want Tennessee's Open Meetings Act changed so they can have special private meetings where the decisions are made and then have a public meeting where the votes are taken to make the backroom deal "official."

Quick and efficient. Yes. Open, accountable, and ethical. No.

Monday, October 29, 2007

October 28, 2007 Local Government Officials Want To Gut Sunshine Laws

A state legislative study subcommittee has decided to recommend that political backroom deal-making and secret meetings of local legislative officials be made legal.

If the full committee and later the General Assembly adopts the subcommittee proposal, local public meetings will be a sham, a shame, and nothing more than a "public" vote/rubber stamp of whatever the local officials have already decided during their private deliberations and secret dealmaking.

The "Open Meetings" subcommittee wants to allow groups of county commissioners, groups of city council members, and groups of school board members to meet in secret (or with the rich and powerful) to deliberate and decide public issues---just as long as the secret meeting involves less than a quorum of the members of the whole body.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel has a good editorial 'Sun' burn sends officials scurrying.

The Tennessean offers its opinion Bolster, don't soften, open meetings law.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal recalls the history behind Tennessee's Open Meetings Act and labels as "hogwash" Memphis state representative Ulysses Jones' public excuse for wanting to allow secret meetings. The C-A has another biting editorial on Redefining 'open' meetings.

If the nightmarish proposal of the subcommittee is adopted by the Tennessee General Assembly, local government officials will be ecstatic and the public will be left in the dark!

You can bet that local government officials will happily revert to the "good old days" when the good old boys and girls had the meeting before the meeting without the pesky public or press (newspaper, radio, TV) around to ask questions.

The subcommittee's proposal is a real step backward for open government. It will dash whatever hope and possibility existed for accountable and ethical local government.

The proposal will give county commissioners, city council members, and school boards state approval to make decisions on both routine and controversial issues in "secret" small group meetings and then come out in "public" only when it's time to vote.

Friday, October 19, 2007

October 19, 2007 Macbeth/MacCollins: "Out D**n Button"

The Hamblen County Commission met last night.

The Tribune photographer took a picture of three local high school students receiving a "Give Kids Good Schools" resolution.

Almost all the votes were 13-0, but there was one 12-1 vote when Larry Baker cast a dissenting vote in opposition to adoption of an "International Building Code" which he sees as an added layer of bureaucracy and expense for home builders and home buyers.

And there was one 11-0-2 vote when a capital plan was adopted with Joe Swann and Frank Parker abstaining due to conflicts of interest.

The really interesting part of the meeting--and just about the only true time of discussion--came toward the end of the meeting.

The quote of the day goes to Commissioner Guy Collins. Guy wanted to speak on one of the agenda items but was told by Chairman Ford that he had to press his "speaking" button before he could continue.

Guy, who has been a county commissioner longer than several of the other commissioners have been alive, kept trying to hit his "speak" button but finally blurted out that he didn't care about that d**n button. Lady Macbeth, no doubt, would have appreciated Guy MacCollins frustration!

[The new voting system that has been instituted by Chairman Ford requires that commissioners who want to speak must hit a "speak" button and then be recognized before making any comments. ]

If Guy's Macbeth remark was the highlight of the meeting, the lowlight came shortly after during discussion of staffing and title changes in the sheriff's department. After listening to commissioners, a citizen (Bonnie Oakberg) raised her hand and asked if she could ask a question.

Chairman Ford lashed out with a clear "no," and in his brief explanation, Ford told Ms. Oakberg that she should have talked to commission at the beginning of the meeting if she had anything to say. Ms. Oakberg then said that she had just thought of something that she wanted to ask.

Ms. Oakberg added that the previous commission used to allow the public to comment when items came up for discussion. [She's right. I was on that commission and was extremely proud of our policy of openness and our willingness to listen to public input.]

With an "I'm important. You're not" attitude, Chairman Ford let Ms. Oakberg know that she would not be allowed to ask a question. Ms. Oakberg left the meeting.

At the end, Commissioner Nancy Phillips asked for a moment to make a statement. She turned to Commissioner Joe Swann and said that she didn't want to get into a fight with anyone, but she did want to say that she thinks that the public should be allowed to speak if they have a question that comes up after the public comments portion of the meeting.

Joe Swann, agreeing with Chairman Ford's heavy-handed tactics, said if the public was allowed to speak there would be "chaos." Apparently, Swann's definition of "chaos" is the public speaking and the commission taking the time to listen.

Then he told Ms. Phillips that the previous commission had been "chaotic." Swann's definition of "chaotic"? Probably commissioners who ask questions, who try to control spending, and who think that higher taxes and spiraling debt pass an overwhelming financial burden on to our children.

Commissioner Phillips took exception to Swann's remarks and replied that there had never been chaos.

Commissioner Tommy Massey who ran unopposed for the seat that I vacated said that he liked the current (Stancil Ford) process and the way the meetings were handled.

Commissioner Baker spoke up in support of Commissioner Phillips.

The meeting was quickly adjourned by Chairman Ford.

I hear from sources that Commissioner Joe Spoone and perhaps another commissioner told Phillips after the meeting that they supported her position on letting the public ask questions during discussion of issues.

The previous commission allowed open, but not unlimited, discussion. Often very good ideas and suggestions were brought up by citizens in the audience. As Commissioner Phillips was heard to say after last night's meeting, citizens have good ideas, too!

Obviously, commissioners make the final decision, but that doesn't mean that the public should be ignored or insulted as Ms. Oakberg was simply because she politely requested permission to ask a question.

I heard one person say last night that Stancil Ford must still think he's in the Tennessee House of Representatives and that he's been reincarnated as iron-fisted Speaker of the House Democrat Jimmy Naifeh.

Ford barks at commissioners and at the public. And to make sure that he can get out of there in 30 minutes, he runs through the agenda like it's a race... with no time to listen to questions that might arise from the public during the meeting.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

October 3, 2007 Knox Sunshine Verdict: 12-0 For the People

Twelve jurors gave a BIG victory to Tennessee citizens and to open government advocates yesterday. The plaintiffs in court were the Knoxville News-Sentinel and nine citizens. The defendant was the Knox County Commission.

At issue in the trial was Tennessee's Open Meetings Act which states in part: "...the policy of this state [is] that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret." TCA 8-44-101.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel and the nine citizens sued Knox County Commissioners for violations of Tennessee's Open Meetings Act (TOMA) in a January 31, 2007, special meeting of the Commission and in actions and conduct prior to that meeting. At the meeting, commissioners appointed 8 new commissioners and 4 new countywide officials (trustee, county clerk, sheriff, and register of deeds) to replace the officials then in office.

Why were 12 officials suddenly being replaced? These 12 officials were term-limited by a Knox County Charter provision that had been approved by Knox County voters in 1994 but that been ignored for 12 years.

When a 2006 Knox case involving term-limited officials reached the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Court issued a ruling in January 2007 that the term limit provisions of the Knox charter were valid and that the 12 officials who were then holding office were in fact term-limited and should be removed from office and replaced.

Yesterday, 12 citizens said that Knox County Commissioners violated both the letter of Tennessee's Open Meetings Law as well as the spirit of the law during the process of appointing replacements for the term-limited officials.

The jurors decided that numerous violations of the law occurred during private meetings of commissioners that took place during numerous recesses at the January 31, 2007, meeting and that other violations occurred during private meetings and deliberations that took place prior to the January 31 meeting.

The ball is in the Chancellor's court now (pun intended). Chancellor Fansler will fashion a remedy for what happened. He has wide latitude in this regard, and you can be sure that Knox County and other public bodies and citizens across the state are watching with deep interest.

Some of the options he has are (1) Order a re-do of the meeting to make the appointments in an open meeting with all deliberations made publicly; (2) issue an injunction that prohibits future "Sunshine" violations and requires that commission report on its compliance to the court.

In a very complex case, each of these options raises its own unique set of issues.

If a "re-do" is ordered, are the eight old term-limited commissioners brought back to vote again on the appointments? Will the re-do really be a new and open consideration of all interested individuals or will it just be a rubber-stamp appointment of the same people again?

If Fansler orders a re-do, will Josh Jordan, son of term-limited commissioner Diane Jordan and himself a former drug-dealer, again be appointed to replace his mother? Will Sharon Cawood, wife of term-limited commissioner Mark Cawood, again be appointed to replace her husband? Will Chuck Bolus, who testified under oath that he suddenly decided to be sworn in early on January 31 but has no recollection at all of how an oath of office suddenly and miraculously appeared in his hand that day, be appointed again?

I am very pleased with the verdict. The News-Sentinel and the nine citizens have given their time and have spent considerable sums of money to clarify the Sunshine Law and to support open and accountable government in Knox County.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government has praised the decision while recognizing that Tennessee's Sunshine Laws (Open Meetings law and Open Records law) are not very strong.

The Coalition, of which the News-Sentinel is a member, wants to strengthen these laws when the Tennessee General Assembly meets in 2008. However, the Coalition's efforts are being opposed by city and county officials and by organizations that represent city and county officials.

These city and county officials and their member associations want to weaken Tennessee's Sunshine laws by providing for more "exceptions" that would prevent citizen access to public records and that would allow officials to meet privately in groups and reach agreements prior to public discussion and sometimes even prior to the public's awareness that a topic is under consideration (the "meeting before the meeting").

If city and county officials get their way in weakening the Sunshine Laws, then the Tennessee General Assembly will need to re-write the introduction to the Open Meetings Act as follows: "...the policy of this state [is] that the formation of public policy and decisions is NONE OF THE PUBLIC'S BUSINESS AND IS TO BE CONDUCTED IN SECRET."