Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 28, 2009 More Official Pow-Wows Without Notice To The Public?

This blog contains my opinion on many issues. I share links to news stories that are reported across the state by various media. And I do some independent local news-gathering, posting information that the local newspaper ignores.

While I am cautious about mentioning things that I hear that have not been verified, there is a rumor going around that there was recently an (unannounced) meeting of a small group of elected and appointed officials who were engaged in important discussions of public business and expenditures.

[NOTE: This meeting may have been held in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. While not all elected or appointed officials are covered by the Sunshine Law, this meeting allegedly included two or more officials who are covered by the Sunshine Law and whose participation in an unannounced meeting to deliberate about public business could rise to a violation of the letter and/or spirit of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. This is not an accusation of a violation because I don't know the specific nature of the discussions nor the identity of all participants.]

The public was not notified of this meeting.

The press apparently was not notified, but we'll have to wait and see if that glitch creates a problem for any of those involved in the meeting.

While the press has never reported when lowly John and Jane Taxpayer are not notified about public meetings, the press just may be ticked when the NEWSPAPER isn't notified!

One solution to solve the dilemma of whether a particular discussion or meeting is a true violation of the Sunshine Law would be to have a public message board for local public officials to use in order to share information with one another---AND THE PUBLIC. Knox County did this after the Knox County Commission was cited for private meetings and deliberations between commissioners. You can also reach the Knox County website here and then click on Commission Forum to see the public message board.

We are approaching the annual celebration of Sunshine Week in Tennessee. And the Citizen-Tribune, as it has always done, will have a wonderful editorial extolling the virtues of Tennessee's Open Meetings and Open Records Acts ("Sunshine" laws).

And at the same time, the Citizen-Tribune knows that there are unannounced meetings taking place in Hamblen County where important discussions and/or deliberations about the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars are taking place in the dark.

You can't have a "public" meeting without adequate notice to the public!

Wouldn't it be refreshing if the Tribune did more than write an editorial once-a-year about how important the Sunshine Laws are?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February 21, 2009 Maybe, Just Maybe, the 2009-2010 Hamblen County Budget Will Be On-Line This Year

During the visitor's comments portion of the Hamblen County Commission meeting on February 19, 2009, I again asked that Hamblen County budget documents be made accessible to the public on the Hamblen County website.

I've been pushing for this from the time I served on commission in 2002-2006 and afterward. This time, there was a mini-breakthrough and a glimmer of sunshine.

Commissioner Nancy Phillips turned to Chairman Stancil Ford and stated she thought that the proposal was a good idea. She asked that the request be placed on the agenda for March committee meetings.

[While I was serving on Commission, Commissioner Phillips and I along with several others pushed to get a Hamblen Government website up and running. She and I also led the push for televising commission meetings. She has a track record of being a proponent of open government.]

After the meeting, Commissioner Tommy Massey came over and said that he, too, thinks this is a good idea. I asked him to please support this when it comes up in committee meetings.

Thank you, Commissioner Phillips, for getting this placed in committee for consideration. Thank you, Commissioner Massey, for expressing your support.

Sharing detailed information with taxpayers about how their taxes have been and are being spent should be a no-brainer. And making information like this available on the government website is a simple process of feeding papers into a scanner and then posting it.

It's time to open up and expand the local government-to-taxpayer information pipeline. As Larry says, when he's not working on cable repairs, Git 'r done!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February 10, 2009 Ethics Committee Violates the Sunshine Law--No Notice to the Public of its December 15 "Public" Meeting

Oops, they did it again--another county government meeting without notice to the public.

THEN: The Commission held a special meeting in May 2007 to appoint the Ethics Committee and did not provide public notice of the meeting. See my post here and the opinion of the county attorney that informing the press about a meeting meets the requirements of "adequate public notice"---even when the press doesn't mention the meeting to the public.

NOW: The Ethics Committee, which rarely meets, has held a special meeting (December 2008) without providing public notice of the meeting. What irony! The Ethics Committee is appointed in a meeting without notice to the public--- and then the Ethics Committee itself meets without notice to the public.

Tennessee's Open Meetings Act (TOMA) is one of our Sunshine Laws. The purpose of TOMA is to make sure that the public's business takes place in the "sunshine" with "adequate public notice" of any meetings.

Tennessee Code 8-44-103 requires Notice of public meetings. —

(a) Notice of Regular Meetings. Any such governmental body which holds a meeting previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.

(b) Notice of Special Meetings. Any such governmental body which holds a meeting not previously scheduled by statute, ordinance, or resolution, or for which notice is not already provided by law, shall give adequate public notice of such meeting.

(c) The notice requirements of this part are in addition to, and not in substitution of, any other notice required by law.

Notice of the special December 15 Ethics Committee meeting was provided to a limited number of people---Ethics Committee members, commissioners, the county attorney, and the press but these were the only people who were notified.

So there's not really a question of whether there was adequate notice to the public. There was NO notice to the public.

[And strangely, the notice that was provided to the press and to the Ethics Committee didn't even mention why there was a special meeting or what it was about.]

As it turned out from reports after the meeting, the Committee considered the "resign or be ousted" letter sent by Mayor David Purkey to then-Constable Paul King, discussed and got county attorney Rusty Cantwell's opinion on the actions taken by Purkey in regard to Paul King and Frank Parker, and then took a vote supporting the "resign or be ousted" letter.

The Parker-King saga at Cherokee Park is a lengthy one of theft, lies, pre-trial diversion, and plea deals, culminating in both keeping their county jobs but with demotions and/or transfers. Of course, it was their boss County Mayor David Purkey who made the decision to keep them on the county payroll and he just happened to be the #1 character reference for both men.

But I digress. Back to the Sunshine Law.

At the January 22 meeting of the full Commission, I spoke to the county attorney before the meeting to point out that there was no notice to the public of the December 15 Ethics meeting. The county attorney repeated his previous opinion that notifying the press is all the county must do. In other words, we tell the press and if the press doesn't pass the word along to the public, then too bad, so sad.

During the visitor's comments portion of the commission meeting, I spoke to the full commission about the apparent violation of the Open Meetings Act, pointing out that the law requires "adequate public notice" and that this is the second meeting that I know of where a limited number of people are notified, but there is NO notice to the public at all.

Actions taken at a meeting in violation of the Sunshine Law may be declared void, but there is a very easy way to correct the violation, and that's what I asked the Ethics Committee to do. Hold a new meeting--with notice to the public and with full deliberation and re-consideration of the actions taken. Problem solved.

After two weeks passed and the commission had not responded to my request for a re-do of the Ethics Committee meeting, I contacted Chairman Stancil Ford to see what, if anything, the county intended to do. Ford stated that he had talked with the county attorney and that the county attorney continues to maintain that notifying the press is all the law requires. Ford suggested that I call the chairman of the Ethics Committee Joe Swann, which I did, and discuss my concerns with Joe.

Joe Swann told me that he had also talked with the county attorney. Swann informed me that the county attorney maintains that there is no violation of the open meetings act and that notice to the press meets the requirements of the law. He was firm in stating that there would be no re-do of the meeting.

I shared with him that it is my opinion that at least two "public" meetings of county government have been held without any notification to the "public." While I fully agreed that there has been "adequate press notice," I believe that the law clearly and in plain words requires "adequate public notice."

In the two instances mentioned, no one has to spend much time bickering over whether "adequate" notice to the public was given, because there was NO public notice at all. Let the Sunshine in.

February 10, 2009 Morristown Utility System Customers Pay For Computer Screens for Hamblen County Commissioners

Hamblen County Commission met Thursday, January 22, and there was something new in front of each of the fourteen commissioners....fourteen lovely new computer monitors.

Where did the lovely new monitors come from?

At the conclusion of the meeting, Chairman Stancil Ford informed the commissioners that the new monitors were given to commission by Morristown Utility System (MUS). Ford added that this lovely "gift" didn't cost the taxpayers a dime.

So were the computer screens really free? NO. Manna from Heaven? NO.

As Paul Harvey would say, it's time for the rest of the story.

Ford said MUS "gave" computer monitors to county commissioners. Well, where in the world did MUS get the money to "give" computer monitors to county commissioners?

From the thousands of MUS water and electric customers who---whether they knew it or not, whether they wanted it included in their utility bill or not--paid for water, electricity, and computer monitors for county commissioners when paying their monthly water and skyrocketing electricity bills.

Surely, Mr. Ford knows that the screens were not free.

Of course, politicians love to talk about "free" grants, "free" dollars from the federal government, "free" dollars from the state government, "free" gifts from one governmental-type entity (like MUS) to another governmental entity (Hamblen County Commission), and "free" gifts from companies, banks, and others who frequently do business with the government.

Most of the "free" grants, dollars, and gifts are not really free at all. They are simply grants, dollars, and gifts that have been paid for by one set of taxpayers or utility customers and are then transferred from one level of government to another with a new name--"grant" or "gift."

And almost all of these "freebies"--whether public or private--come with payback and strings, visible or invisible, attached.