Today is the start of Sunshine Week, and over the next few days we will bring you columns stressing the importance of transparency in our federal, state and local governments. We will also be explaining to you why an open government is not just an issue of concern for us in the news business.
These are your public records and these are your elected officials. Every citizen has a right to inspect these documents and every citizen has a right to expect the people’s business to be conducted in the open.
Fortunately, we Tennesseans have two powerful tools for insuring our governments are open and accessible. One is the state’s Sunshine Law, which says the public’s business “shall not be conducted in secret.” The other is the state’s Public Records Act, which requires government entities to grant citizens full access to public records.
Defenders of open government in Tennessee won an important victory on Capitol Hill earlier this year when legislative leaders decided not to consider a bill to allow local governments to meet in secret. This dubious legislation, which would have allowed government bodies to meet without public notice as long as they didn’t have a quorum, was also opposed by this and other newspapers across the state, as well as the Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
Proponents of the effort to water down Tennessee’s Sunshine Law argue the act is too confusing. On the contrary, the 37-year-old law has been a simple and direct tool for open government.
And the law is tested every day. Like last month, when former Washington County Elections Administrator Connie Sinks was fired a week after confronting three members of the county’s Election Commission with a handwritten letter that she said indicated they had met in November without proper public notice. If proven true, this would be a clear violation of the state’s Sunshine Law.
Election Commissioners Janet Willis, Jon Ruetz and Thomas Graham denied any knowledge of the letter or having ever met clandestinely to conduct election business. Since there is no additional evidence to suggest otherwise, we must believe them. But we would also remind all officeholders that secrecy breeds suspicion.