Nov 10 2007

The Maryville Daily Times asked local elected officials for their thoughts on weakening the state's Open Meetings Act. The article is not online, but it's on the front page of Friday's paper. The responses are interesting.

State Rep. Doug Overbey says public business should be conducted in public, but there is "room for common sense" and that "certainly if there is a quorum present" it should be public.

State Sen. Raymond Finney says he's "all for open and transparent activities", but that "it can be taken to the extreme." He says that "theoretically, county officials would have to drive in separate cars on trips to Nashville."

State Rep. Joe McCord says he needs to "wait and hear all the details," but that people "need the ability to communicate realistically."

First of all, none of these officials has a dog in the hunt. The Tennessee General Assembly has exempted itself from the Open Meetings Act, citing the Tennessee Constitution's provision that only the state legislative bodies themselves can set their own rules and therefore any permanent statute would be unconstitutional. They could, however, adopt a rule for each session requiring all business to be conducted in the open if they wanted to. Apparently they don't want to.

Regarding Rep. Overbey's remarks about there being a "quorum present", one of the proposed changes would only require notice of a public meeting if there's a quorum present instead of just the two or more under the current law. Does this mean Overbey would support weakening the law? Does this mean that he thinks ten Blount County Commissioners should be able to meet and deliberate public business in secret? Interesting.

Sen. Finney appears to be confused about the law. There's no prohibition on riding in a car together, having lunch together, or anything like that. The law specifically provides for "chance meetings, informal assemblages, and electronic communications," and for "any on-site inspection of any project or program." The only requirement is that participants may not "decide or deliberate public business in circumvention of the spirit or requirements" of the law. It would seem possible to for reasonably intelligent people to ride in a car together and not decide or deliberate public policy.

On the local front, Blount Co. Mayor Jerry Cunningham says "I really haven't given it much thought," which isn't all that surprising. He says he's "not really sure it needs liberalizing," but that his office will abide by whatever is decided.

County Commission Chairman Bob Ramsey says it's a "departure from the intent of the guidelines," and that from the point of view of conducting County Commission business, changes shouldn't be necessary.

Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves says "I disagree with the proposal" and that it's "way, way too loose" and she opposes anything that would weaken the law. She says she would like to see it clarified, but she at least has a grasp of what it means to "deliberate."

Alcoa Mayor Don Mull says "not being able to speak to fellow commissioners is ridiculous," but that "getting two or more together to make some kind of decision it's not correct." Basically, he supports the open meetings laws and intends to abide by them.

Alcoa Vice Mayor Clint Abbot is ambivalent, saying he doesn't have a problem with changing it but he doesn't have a problem with the way it is, either. He says there are times when you should be able to get together and talk but not vote. As mentioned previously, the law provides for this as long as there is no deliberation and no decision, so we would suggest to Vice Mayor Abbot that no change is needed.

The most interesting response was from Maryville Vice Mayor Tom Taylor. He seems to think sunshine laws are only needed in big cities where "politics are high powered" and that a more casual approach is OK in a small town as long as there isn't a quorum. He says the city manager used to be able to meet with two city council members at a time to brief them on various issues, but now he's got to have five meetings instead of three. Hey Mr. Vice Mayor Taylor: why not have public workshop sessions for your briefings? Then you'd only have to have one meeting, and it would all be out in the open. Which is sort of the point, isn't it? He also seems to be confused about the law regarding chance meetings and informal assemblages, saying that he won't talk to other council members at social functions. Again, there is no such prohibition in the law.

All of this seems to suggest a couple of things.

It's pretty obvious that the law is confusing to some, and it appears that others haven't even read it. Still others don't seem to feel the need for it at all.

It's our view that the only change needed in the law is a clearer definition of "deliberate" with examples of what is allowed and what isn't. Free exchange of information should be allowed as long as there's no persuasion or advocacy of a particular point of view. This is probably where the line gets fuzzy, and should be made more clear. The only other change might be stiffer penalties for violations.

The only other problem is that it's an honor system, and even when officials honor the system there's always the possibility of public mistrust, leading to fears of even talking to each other such as mentioned by Maryville Vice Mayor Taylor. Restoring public trust in politics will go a long way toward solving that. Conducting public business in public will help restore public trust.

But the way it stands, two, three, eleven, or all of County Commission can get together and talk about whatever they want as long as they don't decide or deliberate or vote. How hard is that? And if there's any question, how hard is it to post a notice at the Courthouse and call up the Daily Times and say "hey, a bunch of us are getting together for a picnic, y'all come on over."

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