State and local officials should block effort to gut Tennessee's sunshine law


Sunday, October 23, 2011

There is a movement afoot in Tennessee to close the door on open government on the local level, and it's being led by local officials who want to keep their dealings secret.

Bob Barnwell, a Williamson County commissioner and head of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, is the leader of this insidious effort. According to a report in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, Barnwell is advocating legislation that would gut the state's Open Meetings Act, otherwise known as the sunshine law.

Barnwell wants county commissions, city councils and school boards to pass nonbinding resolutions asking the Tennessee General Assembly to revise the sunshine law to allow members of local legislative bodies to meet out of the public eye as long as a quorum is not present. The sunshine law currently disallows any meeting between any number of members where deliberations are made.

Barnwell's proposal would render the Open Meetings Act, hailed as a nationwide model when it was enacted in 1974, useless. Members of public bodies would be able to hold meetings in secret and without notifying the public. In Metro Nashville, for example, a majority of the metro council could meet in secret because it takes 27 of the panel's 40 members to constitute a quorum. In Knox County, up to five of the 11 commissioners would be able to meet outside the public's view.

Knox County residents know too well what happens when elected officials circumvent the sunshine law. In 2007, News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy and other residents sued Knox County commissioners over secret discussions related to appointments to fill elected positions vacated because of term limits. The subsequent "Black Wednesday" commission meeting, punctuated by recesses where backroom deals were attempted, was a shameful display of contempt for the public.

In the four years since Black Wednesday, the Knox County Commission has shown it can conduct business while abiding by the sunshine law. The Knoxville City Council and Knox County Board of Education seem to have little problem following the law, too.

Barnwell claims he wants local governments to operate under the same rules as the state Legislature, which is exempt from the Open Records Act. The Legislature's exemption is rooted in the state constitution, however, and local governments have no legitimate reason to deliberate in private.

A key difference can be seen in how redistricting has unfolded this year. The state Legislature has been able to meet in secret to redraw congressional and legislative districts. The public has had zero input.

Knox County and the city of Knoxville have conducted redistricting meetings in the open. Plans are available for review online, and the public is encouraged to comment.

Obviously, open government works best for the people.

Local governments should condemn Barnwell's wrongheaded proposal, and state legislators should block any effort to weaken the sunshine law. Tennessee residents can demand that local governments remain transparent.

The public's business should be conducted in public. That's a principle our public servants must affirm.