Today is the start of national Sunshine Week, a time when folks in the news business talk about how important it is that government meetings and public records remain open to the public. Honestly, it’s hard at times to get readers jazzed about transparency. It’s not exactly a sexy issue, but it’s an important one if we expect good government.
Perhaps the following question will prick the interest of even the most lackadaisical of our citizens:
Do you want your county commissioners to meet behind closed doors?
A year after leading an unsuccessful effort to gut the state’s Sunshine Law, Williamson County commissioner Bob Barnwell is at it again. Beginning in late 2011, Barnwell (a former president of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association) urged county commissions in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties to pass a resolution backing a bill to allow elected officials to meet without a quorum to discuss the public’s business. Citizens would not be apprised of when or where these non-quorum sessions are being held.
Sullivan County commissioners were among a handful of misguided counties (four, to be exact) that approved such a resolution. Thankfully, commissioners in Unicoi and Washington joined six other counties in supporting the Sunshine Law.
The bill died a peaceful death in the last session of the state General Assembly. Even so, a new version of the legislation was introduced this year (SB584/HB274) and Barnwell has sent an email to fellow county commissioners across the state asking them to tell their local legislators to support it.
“Currently, it is illegal for two commissioners to meet to discuss county business,” Barnwell writes in his email. “This is even true if the two commissioners from the same district want to meet at the same time with a constituent.”
That’s not true, but such misinformation can prove to be helpful in gaining the support from county commissioners who don’t know the law. Truthfully, the effort to weaken the Sunshine Law is another example of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. There is no problem with commissioners meeting with constituents. On the contrary, county commissioners are free to converse with constituents under the current Sunshine Law. The real problem, however, would be the deals commissioners could hatch (among themselves) out of the public’s eyesight if this change is approved.
Many years ago, I recall seeing some Washington County commissioners gather at a fast-food restaurant in Jonesborough before a regular meeting to map out their strategy. When I asked about this clear violation of the Sunshine Law, they simply laughed off the get-together as pure coincidence.
I don’t know if any such mischief is going on today, although I’ve been told a group of commissioners are often seen eating lunch in Boones Creek on Fridays with a non-elected courthouse official. Maybe, just maybe, they all get the same hankering, on the same day, for fried fish from the same place.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.