A new automobile assembly plant was on the agenda. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs were involved, along with millions of dollars in private investment, along with an unknown amount of tax dollars.

Three county commissioners were there in the room at the Fayette County employment-training center. So were two county mayors and the lieutenant governor of Tennessee.

The public was not invited.

It appears to have violated the state's open-meetings law, which says many government meetings must be publicized and open, but the law spells out no penalty for violations. Adding some is one of a host of changes proposed by advocates of open government this year.

"We need to keep government fair in Tennessee," said Chris Utley, who was once shut out of a government meeting about a landfill in his Nashville neighborhood. "I feel like we're the voice for the little people. We keep trying."

The secret meeting in Fayette is not a rarity.

Nearly once a week, somewhere in the state, a public official in Tennessee violates the state's open-meetings law, according to complaints collected by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government over the past three years.

The local governments and agencies involved range from the largest to the smallest, from Nashville's Metro Council to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in Decherd, Tenn., population 2,202.

Many of these violations, such as the August 2005 meeting in Fayette County, were reported after the closed-door wheeling and dealing of Operation Tennessee Waltz. It's particularly disturbing to people who say government officials should know better.

"We feel people were specifically kept out of it," said Gary Bullwinkel, who lives close to where the auto plant could be placed. He is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the proposal and has challenged the legality of the closed meeting. "The meeting concerned a billion-dollar proposal that would affect every resident in Fayette County. No one had an inkling it was going on."

Open-government advocates are hoping to ride a wave of post-Waltz sea change on Capitol Hill.

A bill in the legislature put forward by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government would toughen the state's open-meetings law — or "Sunshine Law," so called because it shines light into meetings that were once closed from the public.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government says violations are increasing, and its leader says consequences are in order to force officials to understand and comply with the open-meetings law.

Opponents say the proposed legislation goes too far, since the number of violations claimed is actually small, and it could burden local governing bodies and discourage qualified people from serving in public office.

Changes would include:

• Tightening the definition of a public meeting to ensure public officials know that deliberations before votes or secret e-mail exchanges on a public matter are not legal.

• Requiring governing bodies to give notice if they plan to meet in private. They must meet publicly first, the purpose of their closed session must be explained and they must attain a three-fourths vote to close the meeting.

• The circumstances under which public officials could close meetings would be carefully defined, such as to hear a presentation from their attorney about a pending lawsuit.

• Penalties are laid out in the legislation, too. Under the proposed law, courts would be able to impose civil penalties to the members of governing bodies who are found guilty of violating the law. That civil penalty could be up to $50 per violation, and the court could require guilty public officials, or their agency, to pay court costs.

The bill has not been heard in a legislative committee, but those on both sides of the issue are clamoring for the public's attention on it

Open-government advocates such as the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, funded and supported by Tennessee news outlets as well as private donations, are fighting for the bill.

The chief opponents are organizations that fight for the rights of county elected and appointed officials on Capitol Hill, such as the County Officials Association of Tennessee, which is funded by dues that chiefly come from tax dollars.

Thanks to the Waltz sting, the conditions may be the most favorable in decades to get tougher open-meetings laws passed.

Two of Tennessee's most powerful legislators have signed on to sponsor the TCOG legislation: Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, leader of the Senate Majority Caucus, and Rep. Joe Fowlkes, D-Cornersville, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Advocates know their window of opportunity may not last long.

Legislative leaders say they are waiting to see the bill's fine print after government lobby groups and TCOG agree to work out differences.

Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he is in favor of open meetings and is looking forward to the bill getting its hearing on the Senate floor.

House Majority Leader Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville, said she, too, is waiting to examine the bill in its final form. "We have, for years, heard there was confusion among public officials about the scope of the Sunshine Law," McMillan said. "The legislature stands ready to act when they come to a consensus."

Rep. Frank Buck, D-Dowellton, a supporter of the bill, said it's important that the legislation be passed soon. "Good debate is the fertile mother of good public policy," Buck said. "If it's public, why not discuss it in public view?"

'We're serious out here'

Tennessee has had an open-meetings law on the books since 1974, but it outlines no specific penalties on elected officials who break it — a fact that elected officials are well aware of, open-government advocates say.

"From the violations we are seeing, it's apparent that some people do not understand the law and are not being trained on what the law says," said Frank Gibson, a former reporter and editor with The Tennessean who now leads TCOG.

A former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Gibson has gained a national reputation as an expert on open meetings and freedom-of-information issues. He is TCOG's lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

"The only way to force them to learn is to add some consequence to their violations," he said. "A law is not a law if there's not a consequence attached to it."

Some examples of violations, according to the TCOG survey of complaints:

• In October, a Loudon County resident accused some members of the county's Air Quality Task Force of meeting secretly and making decisions in those private meetings. That same month, members of the Hamilton County Commission were accused of discussing a school board vacancy via e-mail, phone conversations and confidential memos.

• A month before that, the mayor of Franklin held briefings with aldermen to discuss why two suspended police officers were paid $80,000 while suspended and then allowed to retire. The briefings were private, and residents were not invited to listen in.

• The Savannah City Commission gave its fired city manager an extra month's pay after the manager's wife accused three members of the five-member commission of discussing the issue in an unannounced meeting. Two other commissioners said they didn't know about the meeting.

Other complaints included reports of meetings where little or no notice was given in advance, as well as "pre-meetings," where the agenda was discussed before the group went into public session. Other complaints include lightning-quick votes with no debate, leaving the public in the dark, and cases of secret ballots being used to make important and sometimes controversial decisions.

If the public is not aware of the meetings where decisions concerning how public money is spent, about where public buildings go or even how neighborhoods are changed, residents may be harmed, advocates argue.

Property values may plummet in some spots as a factory or warehouse is built nearby that the public was not aware was planned. A quiet street may become a busy thoroughfare without the say of the people who live there. Taxes might be raised to pay for perks decided on behind closed doors.

In the case of Chris Utley, he and his neighbors in Nashville's Bordeaux neighborhood sued the Metro Solid Waste Region Board because it met in 2003 to recommend expanding a nearby landfill — and didn't notify the neighborhood of the meeting. "They didn't want us showing up at the meeting and giving our input," Utley said.

He and his neighbors filed a lawsuit and forced the board to start over. "I think they know not to hide the notices anymore," Utley said. "We're serious out here."

However, potential violations continue.

Nashville's 40-seat Metro Council has recently begun gathering for meals before its evening meetings, eating and talking in a conference room separate from the main council chamber. Vice Mayor Howard Gentry defended the practice, which was begun after the council banned meals paid for by special-interest groups.

The members now pay their own way, he said, and the conference room area was chosen because it's a comfortable dining spot.

"There has never been a thought or an attempt to deny the public access," Gentry said. "If it is truly perceived by the public that this is still not adequate, then we will discuss a way to make our eating more open."

'Burden local governments'

A survey compiled by TCOG shows an increase in the number of complaints about open meeting violations between 2003 and 2005.

In all, the coalition compiled 115 reports of suspected violations between Jan. 1, 2003, and Oct. 31, 2005. And these weren't just complaints by journalists: Many were filed by people such as Utley and Bullwinkel. And at least 40 of those were lodged by concerned residents or by members of city councils, school boards or county commissions, and their lawyers.

Those who oppose the measure say the bill goes too far.

Doug Goddard, executive director of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, called open-meeting violations isolated incidents — just 1% of all the meetings that go on.

Setting a penalty for violations could scare off qualified candidates from seeking office, Goddard said. "You're just going to have nuts out there who want to burden local governments," he said.

Goddard said he has decided against trying to "make a bad bill better" in committee and instead will try to defeat the measure.

Marie Murphy, a lobbyist for the County Officials Association of Tennessee, called TCOG's bill "overbearing and confusing," and described it as not only a nuisance for public officials, but potentially expensive for taxpayers.

For example, she points to wording in the bill that states information concerning the operations of governing bodies should be "freely available." Does that mean that a person who asks for copies of all the minutes of all the county commission meetings can get those for free, she asks.

"Is that saying that I shouldn't pay a reasonable cost?" she said.

Gibson said that term is used in the bill's opening and has nothing to do with the costs of copies of public documents. Governments still would be able to charge copying fees.

Murphy said that other wording adds the term that people coming before governmental bodies should be allowed to "participate equally."

"Does that mean someone can speak as long as they want?" Murphy said.

Gibson said everyone knows what "participate equally" means and that county officials are trying to scare their fellow elected leaders into not supporting the bill.

Murphy also pointed to language in the bill that she said essentially means that any two public officials who discuss public business over lunch or who might share a car ride while discussing public business may be found guilty of violating the law's provisions.

"That's ludicrous," Gibson said. "The language she is referencing has been in the bill since 1974. Two friends who both happen to be members of the Arts Council who go to lunch or have tea shouldn't have to prove they didn't talk about public business."

In essence, the proposed legislation is "much clearer than the current law," Gibson said.

Gibson said that Tennessee needs tougher penalties on officials because the state already has poor national ranking on open-government issues. Already, 38 states have some kind of fine or penalty specifically spelled out for those who violate open-meetings laws.

Even Bullwinkel said he is wary of restrictions that will make it too tough for elected officials to function. But in the end, it's up to public officials to do the right thing, no matter the law's specifics, he said.

"It's a matter of ethics, honor, protection of the spirit of the law and protection of the public interest," he said.

• • •

Thanks to the Associated Press and The Tennessean for use of this story.

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