Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Legislators Work To Weaken Sunshine Law And Open Government

Giving more evidence of a general lack of sensitivity by some elected officials about the need to restore the public’s confidence in their governments, a committee of the Tennessee Legislature seems intent on gutting the Tennessee Public Meetings law.

As we pointed out in yesterday’s post, violations of the law have become widespread and routine. While there are some minor clarifications that are needed, the state legislative committee yesterday chose to take a meat ax to the heart of the law.

Its proposed changes in the law would allow any number of members of any public elected body, public board, public commission or public agency to meet secretly whenever they like as long as they don’t represent a quorum.

The Dirty Dozen

In fact, the changes in the Sunshine Law recommended by the legislators yesterday in Nashville are so outlandish that it would have been legal for the Knox County Board of Commissioners to secretly select commissioners for eight vacant seats and four fulltime elected officials. As we wrote yesterday, that’s exactly what those commissioners did, and a judge and jury kicked all 12 of the secretly chosen officials out of office.

While we are sensitive to the concerns explained by some ethically-minded officials like Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter in a comment to yesterday’s post and they deserve attention, there’s nothing about the recommended change by the study committee in Nashville that passes the smell test.

If the Sunshine Law is changed, it would mean that six City Council members or six Shelby County commissioners could meet in secret to discuss the public’s business.

The Designated Hitter

And forgive our cynicism, but if six are allowed in the meeting, it would be pretty easy to involve a seventh – which would mean that the group had the majority votes to pass whatever they like. All it would take is for one of the six to leave the room and allow the seventh person to take their place, making sure that there’s only six people in the room at the same time.

It’s all a bit reminiscent to us of the early days of Shelby County Government. In those pioneer years in this wilderness community, the county legislative body was the law of the land - administration, judicial and legislative. As a result, when a member was arrested for public drunkenness, enough members kept leaving the room to make sure there was never a quorum to convict him.

Somehow, there are days when the notion of drunk members of public bodies would at least make some of their decisions make sense.

Changes in the Sunshine Law would ensure that meetings in an Internet age would become throwbacks to the back-slapping days of local politics, when the meetings of the three-headed administrative branch of county government – the structure of county government before the mayor’s job was created by public referendum in 1974 - actually lasted less than three minutes.

Pray For Wisdom

It happened because the three officials met privately before their public meeting and cut their deals. When the public meeting convened, they would often make a motion to approve the entire agenda, pass it and adjourn before most people had even sat down.

Frequently, the prayer to open the meeting lasted longer than the meeting itself, making the invocation one day especially insightful. With the officials calling on their budget director to open the meeting, he delivered one of the most eloquent prayers ever delivered at the meeting of a public body -- “Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do. Amen.”

But back to the present, leading the attack on open government in Tennessee is Memphis Rep. Ulysses Jones, described by the Nashville Tennesseean as a “longtime critic of ethics reform.” Now that’s a mantel that someone should be proud to wear, made even more ironic by the reality that the state legislature already has a incredibly low standard for public debate and discussion. It’s always more than passing strange to us that an African-American politician leads the fight against open meetings, since African-Americans were so systematically excluded from the machinery of government decision-making for so long, and laws like this opened up the public processes for the first time.

Members Only

Already, the Tennessee Legislature regularly shuts out the public when they ascend to Capitol Hill as if it’s Mount Olympus, but apparently, some of its members want to make sure that all levels of government in Tennessee pull in the welcome mat to the public who pays their bills, who funds their programs and suffers the consequences of their actions.

Already, the Tennessee Coalition of Open Government is sounding the alarm about the danger of this change in the Sunshine Law, and all of us ought to be taking up the challenge to defeat this legislation. We hasten to add that there are some public-minded elected officials who will undoubtedly oppose these heavy-handed amendments to the Sunshine Law, and they need to hear from us, too.

The 18-member special study committee had divided into two subcommittees – one for the open records law and one of the open meetings law – and recommendations are expected to be voted on by the General Assembly in 2008.

The Cure

It’s worth remembering that our state’s laws aren’t particularly onerous or strict. While there are some areas that need clarity (so there aren’t 95 county attorneys giving 95 different interpretations of the law), the last ranking that we saw by the Investigative Reporters and Editors ranked Tennessee 45th in the effectiveness of its Sunshine Law.

Actually, if it were as strict as some opponents try to make out, there wouldn’t be such widespread violations. After all, the remedy to “cure” a violation is pretty simple – deliberating and debating the same issue in public session. And what are the draconian consequences for a public body if a newspaper or activist actually wins a lawsuit? The action by the public body is voided, which means that it has to have a “do over” in a public meeting.

To hear some statewide organizations representing public officials tell it, all of this creates some incredibly unbearable hardship on them. In the end, that is more a commentary on who their true master is – their own personal political interests rather than the public they took an oath to serve.


Anonymous said...

As we slowly consume Commisioner Carpenter's elephant, one bite at a time, has anyone else felt that it tastes a bit like it came out of a bull rather than an elephant? The inherent elitism of the thinking which would lead to the thinking of the legislature and to that of some of our local commissioners, is exactly why we, the folks that are really in charge of this country, decided to push for the things like sunshine legislation. It is the people's business; and that means all the people.

Tom Guleff said...

Tom J,

I am on board. We need the Sunshine more than ever.