Monday, March 13, 2006

Heavenly sunlight

The News-Sentinel reported today on the common practice of local (and even state officials) violating Tennessee's open meeting law, commonly called a "sunshine law," by flagrantly excluding the public from official meetings, or even worse, finding some way that is legal "on paper" to get around the law.

Tennessee is somewhat unique in having such a law in the first place. Though there are other states that have so-called sunshine laws or "openness amendments," many states do not, and most simply allow government officials to exclude the public at all levels of government meetings by simply declaring that said meeting will be going into "executive session" and asking the public participants to please retire from the chamber or room.

The problem with our sunshine law in Tennessee is that there are no present penalties for violating it. Although I doubt any official would come out and say "let's deliberately break the sunshine law," with no teeth, what's to prevent, for example, the Knoxville City Council from pulling an "executive session" sort of trick?

The problem comes with other ways to get around the law even when teeth are added to the open meetings law. There really isn't anything to prevent the members of a given council/board/committee of government from meeting at Shoney's before the gavel falls to decide how it is the meeting will go. Who's to say members of a body can't meet and pre-decide an outcome over a whiskey at Tootsie's? They could all say "nothing unusual here, we're just getting together for a friendly drink and a chat." It goes on more than many will ever admit, I am sure.

Perhaps the only real teeth for violating the sunshine law would be to write a provision that makes it a felony, and sentences the violators to serious prison time. Sometimes we are forced to treat our leaders like children when they act without maturity or sense.


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