Tuesday, October 18, 2011

TCCA says screw the sunshine laws

Apparently, the Tennessee County Commissioners Association doesn't like the state's sunshine laws. I mean why else would else would it want to create new sub standards that would allow commissioners to operate behind closed doors?

Yeah, I know. A lot of cliches were thrown in there. Who cares? I don't.

Anyhoo, I doubt the Knox County Commission would consider the proposal, but apparently other county officials across the state are.

Here's what's going on:

The TCCA wants to allow any number of members of a commission, school board or city council to meet and discuss public business, so long as there is not a quorum. So basically, they're championing behind-closed door, secret, smoky meetings. And what they're essentially saying to the public is: "Up Yours!"

Think about it. You get a handful of folks to meet and figure out how they want to vote. Then a member of that group meets with a handful of other members.


Here's a release sent to me by Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Frank Gibson:
The president of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association is mounting a statewide campaign to get the state legislature to weaken the state sunshine law.

Under the proposal by Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell any number of members of a county commission, school board, or city council – up to a quorum -- could meet and discuss public business. The public would only have to be given notice if a quorum of the body was present.

Under the proposal, for example, 26 members of the 40-member Nashville Metro Council could meet and discuss issues without it being considered a meeting. That’s because a quorum there is 27.

Commissioner Barnwell is urging county commissions across the state to endorse his proposal with resolutions that ask their local state representatives and senators to support the measure when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. He has reportedly secured a sponsor already.

TPA members should be on the lookout for action by local governing bodies and provide coverage so readers and local good government groups can register their sentiment.

The campaign surfaced in early September when the Shelbyville Times-Gazette reported on a regional TCCA meeting at Henry Horton State Park.

Barnwell complained there that local elected officials have to operate under rules that are different than rules that apply to the General Assembly.

Under the 37-year-old “sunshine law,” two or more members of a government body may not get together in private to “deliberate” toward a decision. If it can be proven in court that they did, the decision in question can be voided by a judge or jury. Under rules of the House and Senate, a quorum has to be present for a gathering to be considered a “meeting.”

Tennessee’s sunshine law was passed in 1974 and has been viewed as a model of government transparency. Nothing in the law prevents two members of a governing body from talking to one another. It’s deliberating and conducting public business that is restricted.

The law was presumed to cover the legislature for 26 years. In 2001, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that the law did not apply to the General Assembly because of two provisions of the state Constitution.

Article II, Section 22, states: “The doors of each house and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret.” The General Assembly has rules that limit the “when” to include matters of state and national security and parts of impeachment proceedings except when a legislator is subject of the ouster.

Another constitutional provision says one legislature cannot bind a subsequent General Assembly. Article II, Section 12, states: “Each house may determine the rules of its proceedings…”

The lawsuit stemmed from a series of closed meetings by House and Senate finance committee members when a state income tax was being actively discussed.

The principal difference of the bodies is that the legislature was created by the Constitution, while local governments are creatures of the General Assembly.

Barnwell’s proposal resurfaced in early October when he persuaded his own county commission to endorse the proposal.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” the Times-Gazette quoted Barnwell as saying.

This issue came up last in 2007 when an open government study committee of legislators, local government officials, media and citizens groups considered the quorum standard. Proposed by Shelby County, the study panel subsequently rejected it after city and county mayors around the state objected to small groups of commissioners and city council members getting together in secret before meetings and ganging up on them and their initiatives.

Even though some county commissions endorsed that proposal, county mayors said those discussions should be held out in the open as the sunshine law required.

- Frank Gibson


Anonymous said...

Dear TCCA,

It shouldn't be about what easier for you, it's about what's best for the citizens.


Tennessee Citizens

P.S. Knox County Commission won't go near this one - not after all they've been through on the Sunshine Law. Surely they've got better sense that that. Don't they?

Mike Donila said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

Lumpy, Scoob, Pinkston, Ivan and the rest of the sheriff's gang made this argument here years ago. It didn't work then, won't work now.

Anonymous said...

Let's don't forget Mike Ragsdale, Madeline Rogero, Steve Hunley, Jack Hudleston, Amy Broyles, Mark Harmon all were involved in the Black Wednesday. Black Wednesday touch all political parties.

Anonymous said...

I really do know better than to reply to stupid posts but when they just blantant lies, I just have to.

Please tell me how Madeline was involved in Black Wednesday.

Amy Broyles was being considered as an appointee, so please tell what she did wrong that day.

Mark Harmon spent 3 hours on the witness stand spilling the beans on the events of that day including coming clean on his own involvement (something no other commissioner has ever done).

Anonymous said...

I normally don't answer comments that call people stupid, but I didn't lie (lies). Madeline was down there lobbing commissioners to appoint Amy to commission. Believe me or not I don't care. Madeline is not as clean on Black Wednesday or anything else for that matter.

Anonymous said...

Assuming the above post is factual, which I don't, but just for the sake of argument -- what's wrong with lobbying on behalf of a candidate? Or maybe "lobbing" is a different thing entirely.

Scott Barker said...

I don't recall seeing Rogero at the Black Wednesday meeting, but there were a lot of people there and a lot was going on so it's possible I didn't notice her.

That said, there was nothing wrong with people who were not on commission lobbying commissioners that day, or any other day. Ragsdale's people certainly did it, as did Hutchison's. The sunshine law - and the Black Wednesday violations - were committed by commissioners alone. The sunshine law only applies to elected bodies (city councils, school boards, county commissions, etc.). It does not apply to mayors, sheriffs, county clerks or private citizens.

Scott Barker said...

Edit: Forget the first part of the second sentence. It should read "The Black Wednesday violations were committed by commissioners alone."

It's been a long day.

Anonymous said...

I know that, but Madeline is the one that said J.J. was part of Black Wednesday, he was appointed during that but I did not see him up there either. So if you are appointed then you are a part of the Black Wednesday crew according to Madelines standards. Also others were lobbing for different people as well such as Steve Hunley, Mark Harmon and others. My point is that all political parties were involved that day.

Anonymous said...

Lord, Brian, use your real name. You're making all of us Anonymouses look bad. How are Madeline and JJ in the same position regarding Black Wednesday?
JJ got the best paying job of his life out of it. And all he had to do was promise to give Hutch a made-up job long enough for him to vest in his pension plan. Madeline got, what?
p.s: That's what Black Wednesday was all about: Hutchison's pension.

Scott Barker said...

J.J. wasn't lobbying during the meeting, but he didn't have to. By that point, he had it in the bag. I distinctly remember people approaching J.J. before the meeting even began to congratulate him on his appointment. But J.J. didn't violate the sunshine law (again, he couldn't have because he wasn't a commissioner).

It is instructive to understand that the bulk of the sunshine law violations happened in the weeks leading up to the meeting. The jury found only two appointments were faulty because of actions commissioners made during the course of the meeting.