What shall be gained by the suit?Both before and since the News-Sentinel's lawsuit against the Knox County Commission began, the public mood has been one of justifiable anger at how the appointments of the term-limited County Commissioners were made. Few disagree that the entire process wreaked of back room dealing, especially since at least one Commissioner has already admitted that negotiations took place during recesses while the Commission was meeting to make these decisions.
The larger problem is not that the Commission may have broken the law, but that the law that Knox County Commissioners are accused of breaking has utterly no teeth. The Tennessee Open Meetings Act is worded grandly in demanding openness of public meetings and government business, but its wording is broad in definition. It does not make a distinction between freedom of speech and thought (two officials sharing an opinion with one another, for example), and a convened meeting. Perhaps worst of all (as I pointed out on yesterday's Halerin Hilton Hill Show), the Act does not provide any real penalties for its violation. What all of this really means is that the State of Tennessee has a Sunshine Law that can be broken on paper, but in a de facto sense, it is hard to determine what constitutes breaking a law that is broadly defined and clearly unenforceable. By the legal definitions provided in the Open Meetings Act, the General Assembly broke the law about once an hour during the two days that I was in Nashville this past March.
Knowing that the Open Meetings Act is not technically enforceable, the question should then be begged: What does the News-Sentinel hope to accomplish in its suit against the Knox County Commission? Does it seek a do-over of the appointment process? While a re-appointment meeting may go smother than the original one did in January, there is nothing to prevent Commissioners from appointing the same eight people that they did before. There is no provision in Tennessee law that would allow for a special election to fill the eight Commission seats before November 2008. Had there been such a provision, none of the issues which brought about this court case would likely exist.
How do the Plaintiffs propose that we punish the guilty? The law certainly gives no guidance on this point whatsoever. Shall Chancellor Fansler call the Defendants to the bench and slap them on the hands ("Bad Commissioners!" "Unruly children!" "Naughty boys and girls!")? Shall he take a paddle to their rears?
Had this kind of mess occurred when any State House or Senate seats or with any key State offices, I have no doubt that Governor Bredesen would have wasted no time in calling a special session of the General Assembly to more clearly define what it is to violate the Open Meetings Act and to give the law teeth by adding real punitive costs for breaking the law. In the next session of the Legislature, the House and Senate need to amend the Open Meetings Act to clear up any confusion as to what is and is not breaking the law, and stiff penalties need to be added so that judges in future cases can punish derelict public officials who ignore the legal perameters under which they are supposed to operate.