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
  • Lion and the Lamb: Our war on women

    Jimmy Carter, who was president from 1977 to 1981, has had quite an impressive career as an author. His first book was published in 1975, and he has now written a total of 37 books, 23 of them after his presidency. He has set a high example for other past presidents, especially those who would like to find ways of being as beneficial to their nation as possible in the days after their retirement.

    April 22, 2014

  • Tidbits: "Selfie" destruction

    Technology continues to profoundly impact our daily lives, from the Heartbleed Bug that put hundreds of thousands of websites at risk of compromising customer usernames and passwords, to the little light that tries to tell me I'm about to run out of gas. Technology also impacts our language, with new words being created to describe the latest gizmo, gadget or trend.

    April 21, 2014

  • Stumptalk: It depends on what you mean

    A writer’s headline asks, “Do we really believe in democracy?” To which I answer, “What do you mean by democracy?

    April 21, 2014

  • LION AND THE LAMB: Four ways to demonstrate opposition

    Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan mention in their book, “The Last Week,” that Roman-occupied Palestine during the first century was under the control of Pontius Pilate who lived in the coastal city of Caesarea. Each year at the beginning of the Passover observance when Jews celebrated their liberation from Egypt, Pilate feared that they might be getting ideas about revolting from Rome, so he would come with additional soldiers on horses to beef up the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. 

    April 15, 2014

  • WE THE PEOPLE: Is it (new) party time?

    The Democratic and Republican parties are toast, according to Joe Trippi. The Republican Party is coming apart at its Tea Party seam. Democratic candidates struggle to celebrate President Obama’s health care successes, while responding to criticism of his failed promises, e.g., government transparency.

    April 15, 2014

  • TIDBITS: I found it at the library

    I have such fond memories of going to my local library as a child, searching through shelf after shelf and finding a book that would make me a Little Princess in World War II England, or bring me along as Nancy Drew solved the Secret in the Old Attic.

    April 14, 2014

  • STUMPTALK: The reason words have meaning

    If words did not have accepted meanings we would not be able to communicate effectively and civilized society would not exist.

    April 14, 2014

  • Lion and the Lamb: Do we really believe in democracy?

    The recent Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, is in a long line of debates about power in a democracy. Should power be in the hands of all the citizens or should it be in hands of those who have greater wealth and social position?

    April 8, 2014

  • We the People: Public education or business opportunity?

    A month ago, we followed the money trail left by a ‘think tank’ to the major sources funding an attack on our traditional, locally controlled public schools. We saw that a handful of billionaires provide major support to many organizations lobbying for change.

    April 8, 2014

  • Stumptalk: Just another government lie?

    There is a vault located in Fort Knox, Kentucky. It was built in 1936 and encased in 16 cubic feet of granite and 4200 feet of cement. The door is made of 20-inch thick material that is immune to drills, torches and explosives.

    April 7, 2014

Marketplace Marquee
Parade
Must Read
Section Teases
Seasonal Content
AP Video
SKorea Ferry Toll Hits 156, Search Gets Tougher Video Shows Possible Syrian Gas Attack Cubs Superfans Celebrate Wrigley's 100th Raw: Cattle Truck Overturns in Texas Admirers Flock to Dole During Kansas Homecoming Raw: Erupting Volcanoes in Guatemala and Peru Alibaba IPO Could Be Largest Ever for Tech Firm FBI Joining Probe of Suburban NY 'Swatting' Call U.S. Paratroopers in Poland, Amid Ukraine Crisis US Reviews Clemency for Certain Inmates Raw: Violence Erupts in Rio Near Olympic Venue Raw: Deadly Bombing in Egypt Raw: What's Inside a Commercial Jet Wheel Well Raw: Obama Arrives in Japan for State Visit Raw: Anti-Obama Activists Fight Manila Police Motels Near Disney Fighting Homeless Problem Michigan Man Sees Thanks to 'bionic Eye' S.C. Man Apologizes for Naked Walk in Wal-Mart Chief Mate: Crew Told to Escape After Passengers
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

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