During a public meeting yesterday, Hamilton County commissioners took aim at the requirement in the state’s Open Meetings Act, sometimes referred to as the sunshine law, that formation of public policy must be done in public. One even went so far as to say, “The sunshine law stinks.”
The comments came on the heels of a story by the Times Free Press about commissioners using telephones to call each other during the meeting to talk privately.
After their comments on Wednesday, the commissioners explained their negative view of the sunshine law to reporter Louie Brogdon. Brogdon also called TCOG for comment, allowing us to explain the importance of open and public debate about decisions made by our elected officials.
I’m posting the full story below, as well as a link to an Attorney’s General opinion that helps to clarify one of the more misunderstood parts of the Open Meetings Act: AG opinion from 2012
By Louie Brogdon
Chattanooga Times Free Press
Hamilton County commissioners say they could do their jobs a lot better if they didn’t have to do everything in public. Just trust them.
On Wednesday, talking over a much-debated measure to replace chairs in some Hamilton County courtrooms, Commissioner Greg Beck said exactly what he thought of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“The sunshine law stinks. We ought to be able to talk. I’ve suggested time and time again that we talk, and that we don’t get to the point where we look like we’re so divided up here,” Beck said.
The sentiment earned Beck a hearty “agreed!” from Commissioner Warren Mackey and an “amen” from Commissioner Sabrena Smedley.
Beck said after the meeting his words might have been “harsh” but they were an indication of his frustration. He said he doesn’t support commissioners deliberating behind closed doors.
“That would open the door for intrigue and deals,” he said.
But he said commissioners should be able to talk between meetings to avoid the “bumps and bruises” of arguing on the dais.
But Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Director Deborah Fisher said disagreements are part of open debate — a foundation of a free society.
“Public meetings are not supposed to be a place where members of a governing body put a perfunctory rubber stamp on some decision reached in a private back-room deal. They are supposed to be a place where citizens, taxpayers, can hear the discussion and debate about decisions being made in their name,” Fisher said.
After the meeting, Mackey said he agreed with Beck, because “the nature of government is oftentimes private.”
He said that at times when the county is seeking a competitive grant or trying to attract a new business, candid conversations need to happen.
“To that extent, I too am 110 percent in support of getting rid of the Sunshine Law, or at least allowing more conversations,” Mackey said. “I’m not saying that we are cutting deals. What I’m saying is simply if we were able to have a conversation, to have all the facts and data and discussion.”
But Fisher said that’s what the open meetings are for — discussion.
“The kind of debate and discussion that happens at a public meeting is the kind of discussion that needs to happen in public. If people want to take that debate behind closed doors, its going to keep the citizens from being informed,” she said.
Smedley said after the meeting her “amen” was mostly a joke. But she did share Beck’s frustration.
“It’s unfortunate that we can’t have more discussion at times, because I think it’s difficult to discuss anything fully at the dais,” she said. “I would never want to be able to just deliberate behind the scenes, but just be able to discuss the topics more thoroughly.”
One justification Beck gave for his feelings was that the state General Assembly doesn’t have to follow its own law.
“I will take to task anybody who wants to say I said the wrong thing about that Sunshine Law when the people who put it on us don’t even recognize it themselves.”
And Fisher agrees with him on that. But two wrongs don’t make a right, she said.
“Just because that’s the case … the principle of transparency is still the important thing,” Fisher said.
But not all commissioners feel the same way.
Commissioner Randy Fairbanks said the law’s the law.
“It really doesn’t matter what we think. That’s the law. We can’t do that. I follow the law; it’s put there for a reason,” Fairbanks said.
If for no other reason, commissioners discuss public business in the open for the sake of keeping the public’s trust, Fisher said.
“Whenever an elected official complains about this, it makes me wonder what they are afraid of — is there something they don’t want the public to know?”
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.