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A victory for the Open Meetings Act

 

Chancellor affirms State’s Open Meeting Law; 12 appointees axed!

The Great Seal of the State of TennesseeIn East Tennessee, a victory for the common citizen and open government was upheld in a case that gives new emphasis to our “Sunshine Law.” Chancellor Daryl Frasler’s ruling voided 12 appointments to elected offices in Knox County. The ruling resulted from a violation of the state Open Meeting Act. Additionally, the judge permanently barred the Knox County Commission and its members from violating the act in the future.

In the past, Tennessee public officials have demonstrated a large degree of disregard, if not contempt, for this law. This ruling upholds a jury’s verdict. As a result, eight county commissioners and four countywide officeholders, including the county sheriff, are immediately out of work. There have been several lawsuits filed alleging officials at various levels of government across the state with violating the state’s open meetings law. Few of those lawsuits have resulted in any real punitive effect. The ruling in Knox County is the most dynamic case so far.


Under Tennessee’s law, it is a violation for two or more members of a public body to privately discuss how they or others will vote on public matters. The case was filed by nine citizens and the Knoxville News Sentinel. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said it was the largest housecleaning of public officials ever in Tennessee under the 1970s-era Open Meetings Act, commonly known as the “Sunshine Law.”

Some officials have complained that the law doesn’t allow them to meet with their fellows. The chancellor wrote that prohibited behavior should be easy to recognize. From a previous ruling he wrote:

Members of public bodies will face very few situations, if any, in which they cannot be aware of … whether or not they are in the course of deliberation towards a decision on a policy or administration affecting the conduct of business of the people.

One can debate and examine merit, public sympathy and impact without discussing one’s vote.

Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale said that “the chancellor and jurors have given us the chance to restore the people’s faith in their government.” He urges the commission to make the new appointments with “an open and transparent process and a great deal of public input.” That is something that all public officials need to take to heart.

From local city and municipal public bodies to the highest levels of state government, the people of Tennessee have found themselves denied access to their government by that very same government. Media across the state have annually reported the level of denial of access to public records to be found in local public offices.

Our own city and county officials have been found to be extremely lacking in this respect repeatedly for the past few years. There has been no noticeable improvement. If anything, public bodies have become more resolved to resist citizen queries for access to public records, despite this law, other state statutes and the many federal regulations and laws that also speak to the right of the citizen to review and seek redress of government.

The Knox County Commission was sued over backroom deal-making in filling county offices that were vacated under a state Supreme Court order affirming term limits approved by Knox County voters in 1994. The jury found commissioners held private deliberations before and during a January 31 meeting in which the 12 seats were filled, “often by friends or family of the previous officeholders.”

It would seem that the Volunteer State has a problem with having its people know how their governments function. In most cases, access to that information is anything but voluntary. May the impact of this Knox County case reverberate across our state.

Some details for this commentary were drawn from AP news story by Duncan Mansfield


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