Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips said last week he has rescinded an offer to the Johnson City Commission to break bread privately with his Board of Aldermen at the MeadowView Conference, Resort & Convention Center. The idea, the mayor said, was to have a “cordial” dinner between the leaders of the two cities to foster goodwill.
That sounds very reasonable. Indeed, local governments should be cultivating closer relationships. The problem, however, is this dinner was to be held out of the view of the public.
Kingsport officials were not planning to give any public notice of this meeting. They defended that decision by citing a state attorney general’s opinion that notes the Sunshine Law allows for such gatherings if no official business is conducted.
Had this dinner taken place as planned, the public would have had to take the word of the elected officials present that they chewed on nothing more than their meals. Forgive us, but that’s not the way true government transparency is supposed to work.
While such a gathering may not violate the letter of the Sunshine Law, it certainly flies in the face of the spirit of the open meetings act.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of passage of the state’s Sunshine Law, which declares: “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.”
Phillips said the dinner he envisioned between the two cities was not to be a secret meeting. But what else would you call a meeting held privately and without giving any public notice?
Leaders of the two cities should meet and get to know each other better, however, they should do so in a session open to the news media and to the public. Secrecy rightfully breeds suspicion. Meeting behind closed doors brings into question the true motives of those who are elected to do the public’s business.
As we said earlier, a cordial dinner between public officials is a fine idea, but only if the public is informed of the gathering.