Tennessee’s public records and open meetings laws are in place to protect the citizens’ interests in matters of government. All too often our local government officials either willfully disregard those laws or do so out of ignorance.
We’re not sure which was the case last week when the Carter County Commission voted to purchase land and a building for a new recycling center without publicly disclosing the location. County employees and elected officials went to great lengths to suppress that information, resorting to angry calls to this newsroom after learning of the Press’ intentions to publish the location. A reporter had been with committee members when they toured sites. The claim was that the seller would back out of the deal were made public.
County Mayor Rusty Barnett went as far as to say the county made a mistake by inviting our reporter on the tour. He’s wrong. Meetings involving elected officials toward a property purchase are not among the exceptions to the open meetings law.
No, the mistake was in promising the seller a secret deal.
That’s not how an open government should work.
Local governmental commissions and committees do the public’s business. With few exceptions, Tennessee requires that business to be conducted in the open.
It’s the citizens’ business when committees vote. It’s the citizens’ money Carter County is spending on that recycling center. None of that should take place behind closed doors or under a veil of secrecy. Every member of the Carter County Commission was fully aware of which site — Lewis Wood Products property in the Cherokee Industrial Park — they were voting to acquire.
These shenanigans occur every year, seemingly in every county in our region. The public has been shut out of everything from budget discussions to sessions of full municipal and county governing bodies. A glaring recent example was the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s clandestine session during its quest to build and then lease a school to Washington County.
Our local governments are not alone in these messes. They happen across Tennessee, some even requiring court actions.
We have a challenge for State Sen. Rusty Crowe and his colleagues in the Tennessee General Assembly: Introduce and enact legislation requiring local officials to undergo periodic training in the state’s public records and open meetings laws.
At this point, the law merely requires various support organizations — the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, the County Technical Assistance Service and the Tennessee School Boards Association — to develop programs for educating elected officials about the open meetings laws and compliance.
The law says nothing about requiring participation in those programs or about periodic updates. The legislature should change that.
Meanwhile, we have a message for local government officials — both elected and appointed. It sits atop this page every day. For decades, our motto has been “What the people don’t know WILL hurt them.” Take that to the bank.