Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Opinion

March 11, 2013

Tidbits: Let the sun shine on government

CROSSVILLE — It's Sunshine Week in Tennessee. That doesn't mean Mother Nature is obligated to brighten our days with cloudless skies and warm breezes. It does mean it's time for everyone to sit up and take notice of their government.

Tennessee requires its local governments to operate in the "Sunshine." That means the public's business is to be conducted in the public. It means citizens have the right to request and receive documents of public business, to know how much public employees are paid and to see personnel files, warts and all, without having to jump through unnecessary and cumbersome hoops.

The law also declares public policy and public business not be conducted in secret. All meetings of governing bodies are to be public — no matter how few members of the governing body are present.

Many people believe the state's open records and open meetings laws were brought about to benefit the media. I'll grant you we make use of those laws on a regular basis, but it's not about the media. It's about the citizens and their right to know what is going on in their government.

There are big holes left in the law. The Tennessee General Assembly exempts itself from open meetings laws. If a government entity takes action outside an open and called meeting, there is little punitive action taken except the illegal vote is nullified and a "legal" meeting is called to retake the vote.

There are also many exceptions for open records. Many of these should be there, such as protecting the individual records of students in our public schools. Honestly, it's not the public's business if little Johnny got a C in Algebra.

All those exceptions, scattered throughout Tennessee Code Annotated and in Tennessee case law make it difficult for those charged with keeping the public's records to know what's public and what's not. Often there is little training on how to handle such requests and, unfortunately, many public employees err on the side of not releasing anything they aren't sure about even though the law requires them to cite the specific reason for denying an open records request.

And then there's the "chance meetings" provision. I recognize that in a small town, it's likely our elected officials are going to run into each other from time to time outside of the eyes of their constituents. But the law is clear — if there is a chance meeting, informal assembly or electronic communication, these elected officials are not to decide or deliberate public business.

The people who elected these members of government not only have a right to know what is decided, but how that decision was reached. Often, it's the deliberation that's most important and that offers insight into the "why" behind the "who, what, when and where." Members of the public would be left scratching their head and wondering, "Why did they do that?"

The law is not perfect and our elected officials need to look at strengthening the public's access to records that have to do with the public's business. Unfortunately, many in the Tennessee General Assembly wouldn't mind putting a few more holes in the law. There are movements afoot that would allow local government officials to meet privately, so long as a quorum was not present. Think about that. For the Cumberland County Commission, as many as eight commissioners could get together, talk about industrial development, jobs creation, land purchases, budget decisions, and on and on, without having to make that discussion public.

That's not going to foster respect and trust in those elected to office. That's not government of the people and by the people.

• • •

Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published each Tuesday. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.



 

1
Text Only
Opinion
  • Tidbits: Taking a low-tech break

    Feeling increasingly strangled by my electronic leash, with phone, text messages, email, social media and a variety of other forms of communication always at my side, I took the weekend off.

    July 28, 2014

  • Stumptalk: Governing before and after mass corruption

    Laws in America were originally written simply. Every citizen could read them quickly and understand their meaning. The founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance and the Constitution of the United States, none of which was longer than 4,500 words.

    July 28, 2014

  • We the People: The last dance

    Charlie Hayden’s last recording session with his early partner, Keith Jarrett, was in 2007.  The songs they played were mostly melancholy.  The second album coming from that session includes Weil’s “My Ship” and Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” The dark ballad “Goodbye,” by Gordon Jenkins, was the final track.

    July 22, 2014

  • Lion and the Lamb: Living in a pressure cooker

    The Gaza Strip, a small Palestinian territory about the size of Washington, D.C., has been in the news almost every day.  Its key location at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea has attracted a number of occupying powers over the years, and it has  been at the center of much Middle East history.

    July 22, 2014

  • Tidbits: The excitement of election day

    On March 12, 1996, there were 427,183 votes cast in the presidential primary election. Among those votes was mine, the first vote I cast in an election, just two days after my 18th birthday.

    July 21, 2014

  • Raising the minimum wage

    My first job from which FICA was withheld was a minimum wage job, seventy-five cents an hour. And yes, even then no one could live on that little money. However, I was a high schooler living at home where my father provided room and board. The job gave me pocket money to buy gasoline, to take my girlfriend out for movies and burgers, and to buy tickets for baseball games.

    July 21, 2014

  • Lion and the Lamb: Children on the move

    The news this past week has focused on the humanitarian crisis developing on our southern border. Thousands of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras seeking to escape from the violence, human trafficking and extreme poverty in their countries have been entering the United States.

    July 15, 2014

  • We the People: Memo to gun rights groups

    The recent incident in California helps us understand why we cannot rely on mental health services alone to solve the problem of gun violence.

    July 15, 2014

  • Tidbits: Make the best of your road trip

    I didn’t care for road trips when I was young. It was so confining to have to sit in the back seat, staring out the window for hour after hour, hayfield after hayfield. And when you’re a kid, time doesn’t pass like it does when you get a little older. Just the trip from Jamestown, TN, to Crossville, roughly 30 miles, felt like an eternity!

    July 14, 2014

  • Stumptalk: Biased climate agenda will cost trillions

    For anyone who has been educated in the history of science and scientific method, this whole issue of “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” is an embarrassing and painful exercise.

    July 14, 2014

Marketplace Marquee
Parade
Must Read
Section Teases
Seasonal Content
AP Video
Kerry: Humanitarian Cease-fire Efforts Continue Raw: Corruption Trial Begins for Former Va Gov. The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming UN Security Council Calls for Gaza Cease-fire Traditional African Dishes Teach Healthy Eating 13 Struck by Lightning on Calif. Beach Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted Israel, Hamas Trade Fire Despite Truce in Gaza Italy's Nibali Set to Win First Tour De France Raw: Shipwrecked Concordia Completes Last Voyage Raw: Sea Turtle Hatchlings Emerge From Nest Raw: Massive Dust Storm Covers Phoenix 12-hour Cease-fire in Gaza Fighting Begins Raw: Bolivian Dancers Attempt to Break Record Raw: Israel, Palestine Supporters Rally in US Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage Virginia Governor Tours Tornado Aftermath Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma More M17 Bodies Return, Sanctions on Russia Grow
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Weather Radar
2014 Readers' Choice
Graduation 2014