Several recent incidents point to a growing need for elected officials in Tennessee to educate themselves on what they can and can’t do under the state’s Sunshine Law. As we have advocated in this space in the past, we believe all public officials and government employees should be better versed in both Tennessee’s open meetings and open records laws.
Secrecy in conducting the public’s business is expressly forbidden under the Sunshine Law. Even so, some officeholders periodically forget that simple rule when they meet.
The Associated Press reported this week that a committee of the Maury County Commission will be forced to repeat a meeting after it failed to provide public notice — as required by state law — that it was gathering Monday.
And as Press Elizabethton Bureau Chief John Thompson reported earlier this week, the Elizabethton Board of Education was forced to conduct a second vote for board chairman Monday after the panel selected Rita Booher by secret ballot last month.
Newly elected School Board member Grover May said the suggestion to hold a secret ballot was made to help board members “vote their conscience,” but he realized “some of us were new members and some of us may not have been aware of the nuances (of the Sunshine Law).”
This is indeed a case where better orientation of the Sunshine Law could have saved public officials from embarrassment. Transparency is essential for good government. Discussing important matters publicly (such as the selection of a School Board chairman) allows elected officials and concerned citizens to judge the motivations of those who make the proposals, as well as provide an open forum for debating their merits.