By Deborah Fisher, Executive Director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
Just a few days before Christmas, we open government advocates must sadly add a name to the naughty list.
Over in Bradley County, public officials have been trying to settle who will take care of the animal control services after a longstanding agreement with the city of Cleveland fell apart over the county’s portion of the animal shelter budget.
The county got proposals from two nonprofits at prices a far bit apart: $80,000 and $240,000 annually.
The commission had created an ad hoc animal control committee, chaired by Commissioner Charlotte Peak-Jones. She decided to call a meeting of the ad hoc committee for Dec. 9 and, at that meeting, the committee discussed the proposals, and voted to recommend to the full county commission the $80,000 one.
Trouble was, that meeting, in open government parlance, was not properly noticed.
A public notice for the meeting was put on the county’s web site, but not placed anywhere else that the public might have seen it in time to make it to the meeting. Furthermore, the notice only contained the time and place. It did not mention that the committee would be deciding on its recommendation between the two proposals.
Rachel Veazey, a community representative who has been active on the issue of animal control in the county, complained to Tennessee’s Office of Open Records Counsel that the committee violated the state’s sunshine law, which requires a governing body to provide the public with adequate notice of a public meeting.
Tennessee courts have set out a three-prong test related to adequate notice for special meetings that is required by the Open Meetings Act:
- The notice must be posted where the community would see it;
- The notice should describe the purpose of the meeting and proposed actions to be taken; and,
- The notice must be posted in enough time that community members could find out about it and attend.
The Office of Open Records Counsel, Elisha Hodge, on Dec. 16, wrote Peak-Jones noting the complaint and the three-prong test.
“…based solely upon the information that has been presented to this office, it appears that a violation of the open meetings act may have occurred,” Hodge wrote.
She suggested that Ms. Peak-Jones confer with legal counsel and focus on “what is required in order to provide ‘adequate public notice’ and how any potential violation that occurred at the December 9, 2013 meeting can be cured.”
What happens next is the naughty part.
Ms. Peak Jones had put on the full county commission’s agenda for Dec. 16 a recommendation from her ad hoc committee. But with the OORC’s letter looming of her committee’s rather non-sunshine actions, she pulled the agenda item and substituted her own personal recommendation instead.
Which, not suprisingly, was the same as the ad hoc committee’s.
She did not, as laid out in previous cases as acceptable ways to “cure” a public meetings violation, acknowledge the problem and announce she would reschedule her ad hoc committee and do it right this time, in an open government manner.
Did the Bradley County Commission do anything wrong in taking a vote that day? Probably not. At least technically.
Did Ms. Peak-Jones?
Well, that’s why her name goes on the naughty list.
To the Bradley County Commission’s credit, there was open deliberation at its Dec. 16 meeting to go with the $80,000 proposal.
But lurking in the omissions by Ms. Peak-Jones and the ad hoc committee’s “public notice” is the sort of lack of care for the public’s involvement that we don’t like to see.
Any special called meeting is required to have adequate notice of the meeting – and that notice should include what’s going to be discussed.
In fact, it would be in the best interest of open government if all the committee meetings on the Bradley County Commission Calendar — whether special-called or not — had some type of agenda attached so the public will know what’s being discussed. (Note: they don’t.)
The decision by the chairwoman of the committee to pull the committee’s recommendation and substitute her own is downright naughty and the kind of thing that creates mistrust of government officials. It’s as if she really did not believe in the spirit of open government.
In the spirit of Christmas, however, we shall hope that the Ghosts of Open Government past, present and future make their appropriate visits and light the way for better decisions tomorrow for all of us.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is a 10-year-old nonprofit alliance of media, citizens and good government groups working to preserve and increase government transparency in our state. Fisher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow TCOG through twitter @TNOpenGovt or on its Facebook page.