ERWIN — The Unicoi County Commission is set to once again discuss its stance on tweaking the state’s open meetings law, also known as the Sunshine Law, when it meets Monday to consider a resolution advocating changes to the law.
Under the state’s Sunshine Law, which was passed in 1974, governmental entities are required to give prior public notice of meetings in which two or more members of an entity that makes recommendations or decisions gather.
According to previously published reports, Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, former president of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, is credited with initiating a proposal to change the Sunshine Law so that public notice of a meeting would only be required if a quorum of a governmental body is present. Barnwell has been urging county commissions statewide to endorse resolutions asking representatives and senators to support amending the law when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, according to reports.
In late November, Sullivan County Commissioner Bill Kilgore introduced a resolution asking the Sullivan County Commission to lend its support to changing the Sunshine Law.
Last month, the Unicoi County Commission voted to have County Attorney Doug Shults draft a resolution, following the model of the resolution introduced to Sullivan County commissioners by Kilgore, for its consideration.
Commissioner Doug Bowman, who presented the proposal at a planning session held prior to that meeting, said that the county would be better served by discussing some matters — such as potential property purchases by the county and industries that may locate here — out of public view. Bowman said sellers could balloon property prices after learning of the county’s intent to purchase and said other counties could offer better deals to prospective industries.
According to Associated Press reports released Friday, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said that he may support changes to the Sunshine Law but not the weakening of the law itself. Ramsey was quoted as stating that he feels officials should not have to fear legal action for discussing governmental business outside official meetings. Since the last meeting of the Unicoi County Commission, reports have been published in which Gov. Bill Haslam has voiced his opposition to changing the Sunshine Law.
While the motion to have a resolution drawn up was unanimously voted in favor of by Unicoi County Commissioners present at last month’s meeting, it appears sentiment on supporting changes to the Sunshine Law is not as accordant.
Unicoi Commission Chair Sue Jean Wilson said that she has not yet had the opportunity to view the resolution to be voted on Monday, but she said she is opposed to the county supporting changes to the state’s open meetings law.
“My personal opinion is that nothing that we do should be behind close doors except for the talks we can have with our attorney if there is a pending lawsuit,” she said.
Commissioner Loren Thomas said he felt Bowman made some strong points in his proposal and was in favor of seeing a resolution drafted. However, Thomas said he is also opposed to supporting changes to the law.
“After I left and got to thinking about it, I’m not for that,” Thomas said.
Thomas also said support of the idea may be construed by some as officials wanting to keep the public out of county business, a process he said he prefers to keep open.
“I just think we need to leave it the way it is,” Thomas said.
Although he does not have a vote on the matter, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch also voiced opposition to the county supporting amendments to the Sunshine Law. When he last campaigned for the office, Lynch said one of his pledges was for transparency in county business.
“For me to support this would be kind of like me going back on my word,” Lynch said.
Lynch also said “surgery” to the law to allow for certain committees to meet privately is unnecessary and would only serve to move the issue “backward.”
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy with the Sunshine Law the way it is,” he said. “It’s sometimes difficult to get things done, but on heavy issues ... we still have attorney/client privileges without playing our hand to whoever we’re litigating.”
Unicoi County Citizens for Good Governance spokesman John Day has not only started an online petition to garner signatures for those opposed to changing the state’s open meetings law, but is also holding a public meeting today at 6:30 p.m at Erwin Town Hall on the issue. There, attendees will have the opportunity to sign a petition to the commissioners urging them not to support changes to the Sunshine Law.
Day’s petition states that “any government that operates in secrecy is no longer a democracy.” Day said he feels the public should be involved in public business on the front end.
“I am firmly against this change in the Sunshine Law,” Day said.
The NET News Service and
Associated Press contributed to this report.