Proponents of an effort to water down Tennessee’s open meetings law believe the act is too confusing. That’s why members of the Unicoi County Commission and others say they want to amend the Sunshine Law to allow government officials to meet behind closed doors to discuss the people’s business.
They are wrong. There’s nothing confusing or complicated at all about the 37-year-old Sunshine Law. In fact, the law is actually quite simple. It plainly 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.”
Unicoi County commissioners are scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. Monday to vote on a resolution expressing support for a proposal to allow elected officials to meet without a quorum to discuss the public’s business. Citizens would not be apprised of when or even where these non-quorum sessions are being held.
We urge all citizens who believe the best government is the government that conducts its business in the open to show up at this meeting and send this clear message to their commissioners:
“We have a right to know what you are up to.”
For the most part, local governments follow the Sunshine Law in good faith. At times, however, elected officials have been charged with circumventing the law to deliberate in private.
One such complaint came from residents in Elizabethton, who said members of the city’s Board of Education violated the Sunshine Law in 2003 when they met with a finalist for the job of city schools director in Nashville while attending a Tennessee School Board Association conference there. A month later, the board named that same finalist to fill the job.
Another case came in 2007 when jurors found the Knox County Commission had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when members secretly discussed how to fill a dozen committee and board appointments. The commission’s actions were later rescinded by the courts.
Each Monday, this newspaper brings you a feature we call “Your Government At Work.” It’s a listing of the public meetings slated for that week. They are generally gatherings of school boards, city councils and county commissions.
We believe citizens have a right to see for themselves what their elected officials are up to. That’s why we encourage residents to attend these meetings whenever they can.
Unfortunately, if proponents of the proposed change to the Sunshine Law are successful, the public will no longer be privy to all the discussions that are held by their elected officials to reach decisions on important issues.
As we’ve said on this page for 50 years, “What the people don’t know WILL hurt them.”