Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

March 11, 2013

Tidbits: Let the sun shine on government

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

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.