Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Eating crow on the trial

I trust that readers will forgive me for eating crow for an early morning snack, because I said yesterday that I believed that it would take the jury no small amount of time to reach a verdict on twelve separate counts of whether the Knox County Commission violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act on January 31 in the case of The Knoxville News-Sentinel v. The Knox County Commission.

Deliberations began at 9 A.M. and the jury sent for lunch at midmorning. The jury returned just after 1:30 with all of its verdicts. Both News-Sentinel editor Jack McElroy and attorney Herb Moncier are jubilant, and rightly so-they got the guilty verdict they were looking for.

The story is far from over, however. As has been pointed out in all of the commentary I have written on the trial up to this point, the Open Meetings Act has literally no teeth-it imposes no criminal penalties, nor does it dictate that the guilty must pay any financial damages. From a practical point of view, this is a verdict with great symbolism but could have very little substance.

The ball is now in Chancellor Daryl Fansler's court, because it is he who will now decide what the Knox County Commission must do to rectify their violation of the Sunshine Law. Effectively, he has three options: First, he could order the Commission to simply "re-do" the appointments in a much more open fashion. With the possible exception of Josh Jordan, it would not be surprising if the rest of the eight replacement Commissioners were re-appointed under such a scenario. Fansler's second option would be to order that all of the original term-limited officeholders, including former Sheriff Tim Hutchison and former County Clerk William Mike Padgett be returned to their posts pending the 2008 February Primary, when the process of electing replacements can commence. This second option makes the most sense and could rectify any public perception of a "fix."

The third option, of course, is for the Chancellor to take no effective action. I doubt that this will occur considering the sheer amount of taxpayer time and money spent on and during this trial.

Whatever he decides, the weight of Tennessee history now rests on Daryl Fansler's shoulders.



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