Editor’s note: Portions of this column originally appeared on March 10, 2013.
Last week, I noted a number of important events that transpired in the year 1974. However, I inadvertently left out one item that still benefits Tennesseans on a daily basis. This year marks the 40th anniversary of passage of the state’s Sunshine Law.
That law was approved by the state General Assembly at the urging of the Tennessee Press Association, which was led at the time by the then publisher/owner of this newspaper. The late Carl A. Jones was the incoming president of the TPA and was instrumental in pushing passage of the Open Meetings Act.
Tennessee’s Sunshine Law states: “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.”
The real business of government at all levels — local, state and federal — should be transparency. WE THE PEOPLE are the government, and it’s our right as stockholders in this democratic enterprise to demand a full disclosure from our hired hands.
Today marks the start of National Sunshine Week and (as I’ve noted in many previous columns over the years) it’s a time when we in the news business try to draw attention to the importance of open government.
Again, it’s our government and we should expect its business to be conducted in the open. We also should demand our public meetings remain open to the public.
In 2007, a jury found the Knox County Commission violated the state’s Sunshine Law when its members secretly discussed how to fill a dozen appointments for offices prior to casting an official vote. That decision is one of the most important of its type ever handed down by a jury in this state and best illustrates why Tennessee lawmakers must protect the Open Meetings Act.
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.
The Sunshine Law forbids local government members from meeting privately to discuss the public’s business. It doesn’t, however, ban officials from speaking to each other during chance encounters.
The law has been a simple and direct tool for open government in Tennessee. It should never be changed to allow government officials to threaten that transparency.
Unfortunately, there have been several efforts in recent years to weaken the Sunshine Law. One such effort was defeated in the General Assembly last year. It was a bill that would have allowed elected officials to gather — without any public notice — as long as they didn’t have a quorum.
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.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.