A proposal by the president of Tennessee County Commissioners Association to loosen the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, often called the "Sunshine Law," was first reported on by the Times-Gazette back in September, after a TCCA regional meeting held at Henry Horton State Park.
Currently, it's a violation of the Sunshine Law for any two members of the same legislative body to deliberate public business without notifying the public and giving the public a chance to attend. That doesn't prevent them from meeting, or talking, or going to the same church or club, as long as what they're talking about isn't public business.
Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell wants to loosen those rules so that any group less than a quorum could discuss public business without public notice. For example, the current rules prohibit any two of the 18 county commissioners from discussing public business in secret. Under Barnwell's proposed change, as many as nine -- half of the commission -- could get together, in secret. As many as three members of Shelbyville City Council or as many as four school board members could meet in secret.
Barnwell claims that he's only bringing local governments under the same rules as the state legislature. He wants individual county commissions to pass resolutions supporting his proposal, and has already persuaded his own colleagues in Williamson County to do so.
According to Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG), the legislature was presumed to be under the same rules as local governments when the Sunshine Law was passed in 1974. But in 2001, a state Court of Appeals decision rules that two parts of the state constitution related to legislative business kept the legislature from imposing blanket open government rules on itself, especially since one legislative session isn't allowed to restrict the rules or procedures followed by the next legislative session.
Currently, the legislature has rules allowing secret meetings only in matters of state or national security or impeachment proceedings for state officials other than legislators themselves. (Impeachment proceedings for state legislators would be open.)
The last time a proposal like Barnwell's was put forth, it was opposed, not only by the press (open government is essential for us to do our jobs) but by city and county mayors. According to Gibson, mayors were concerned that small groups of county commissioners or city council members might plot against them or their proposals in secret.
Gibson calls the existing law "a model of government transparency," and most of us in journalism agree. It does not need to be chipped away at. Commissioners and council members, especially in smaller, more rural settings, sometimes complain that they might be subject to harassment just because two of them happen to be in the same Sunday School class or like the same restaurant. That's ridiculous.
For one thing, the Sunshine Law has no criminal penalties. Its only real-world application is that if you can prove in court that a legislative decision was debated or voted on without proper public notice, you can get that decision declared null and void, forcing the legislative body to go back to the drawing board and start the process over again.
That seems like a small price to pay for open government. Commmissioner Barnwell's proposal is a bad one, and should be rejected by local governments and by the General Assembly.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.