One of the most common complaints I get from citizens in towns across Tennessee is that their public officials do not give them adequate notice of upcoming public meetings.
It always surprises me to see this problem: County commissioners, utility boards or school boards who post a time and place for their meetings on a bulletin board in a government building, maybe on their website, maybe in their local newspaper, but probably without an agenda, and most often without the agenda packet that contains all the background.
How can we expect citizens to be interested in our government if we treat them like they have no interest?
It’s at the local level where meeting notices get fixed, in the determined actions of people like Cumberland County Commissioner Carmin Lynch who chairs his commission’s Rules Committee.
Cumberland County commissioners this month approved a change in their rules to require themselves to post an agenda and a copy of the agenda packet to the county web site “no later than one week prior to the meeting,” as reported by the Crossville Chronicle.
Lynch said he proposed the change because it became to clear to him that citizens were at a disadvantage in knowing what the county was doing. Citizens would come to a meeting, and get a summarized agenda, “but even looking at the agenda, you couldn’t tell what we were talking about.”
“All the discussion would go on at the committee meetings,” Lynch said. And when citizens came to the full county commission meeting, “they would sit there with a nebulous agenda, there would be no comments and we would just vote.”
He saw an opportunity to get more information to the public by posting to the county website the full packet agenda that all the county commissioners received in advance of the general meeting as a way of letting people know well before the meeting about the background and details of an issue.
A growing number of governing entities in Tennessee do post agenda packets on their websites in advance of meetings, but most do not. They should.
Check the ones in your area – school boards, cities, counties, utilities, hospital boards.
I’d love to hear from you on who does and doesn’t (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)– and find more champions like Lynch of open government in Tennessee.
(Note: If your local governing entity is unwilling to proactively post an agenda packet to its website, you can still request and receive it before the meeting. It’s a public document covered under the Tennessee Public Records Act, as are draft and approved minutes of a meeting.)