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"The General Assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this State that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret." — T.C.A. 8-44-101-201

The state's Open Meetings law, or Sunshine Law, has been much in the news recently as a jury of citizens in Knox County sat in judgment of those elected to serve them. The citizens found them lacking.

Specifically, the jury said the Knox County Commission violated the spirit and letter of the Sunshine Law when at least two or more members of the county's governing body "decided or deliberated toward a decision" when making appointments to fill 12 term-limited offices. In at least two of those appointments, private deliberations continued during a recess of the meeting itself, the jury found.

During the three weeks of testimony, citizens heard of "gentlemen's agreements" and political feuds.

The jury found the commission guilty of deliberating on holding a special-called meeting to make the appointments; voting in secret to set the special-called meeting; determining in secret the rules for that meeting, which included no public input; two or more commissioners engaged in private deliberations and decision-making in all 12 appointments in the days before the meeting; deliberating or deciding during recesses taken at the Jan. 31 meeting; and discredited testimony one commissioner was sworn in early so he could cast a tie-breaking vote for another office.

But aside from some bad publicity, what's to stop this commission, or any other public body for that matter, from doing the same thing again? The Sunshine Law doesn't provide for fines against those found to violate it. It just says action taken in an illegal meeting is null and void.

I'm a firm believer in the Sunshine Law. As a reporter, it's invaluable. As a citizen, I know it's there to help curb political deals brokered in a smoky back room. But if there are no real consequences, why should public officials bother with honest, open debate on issues in the public eye?

A bid to update the law and give it a bit more bite failed in the General Assembly last year. That bill included a $50 fine and attorneys' fees being assessed for city councils and county commissions that knowingly violated the open meeting rules. It would also have clarified when a meeting can be closed, how notice of meetings should be given and what activities constitute an official meeting.

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and a member of the Open Government Committee appointed to recommend changes to the state, said there could be a push to further weaken the laws. Last month, local government representatives on the committee said the current laws mandate too much openness, while open government advocates said current laws are filled with exceptions, are hard to understand and are often ignored.

Gibson told the News Sentinel there could be a push to weaken the Sunshine Law next year. Lobbyists for counties are floating the idea of amending the law to say a violation of the Sunshine Law occurs only when a quorum is present.

"It would allow the things that came to light in that three-week trial to occur all over the state," Gibson told the newspaper. "That would not be good for the people's right to know about what their elected officials are doing."

It's time for the laws to change and really let some sun shine on government.

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