Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The land of sunshine hypocrisy

The Knox County Commission voted down (wisely) a proposed Charter Review Committee that would have been appointed by a County Mayor who lacks ethics himself and needs to be investigated. Ragsdale and his allies at the News-Sentinel editorial board wanted this Review Committee so that they could put the amendments they wanted before the people-nevermind what might be in the public interest. Meanwhile, some bloggers are going apey over this:

Commissioners described seemingly minor discussions, and Commissioner Greg
"Lumpy" Lambert
indicated he aimed to remedy any private discussion by
explaining it publicly.

"If I have a conversation that needs to be cured by
talking about it publicly, is now the time to do that?" Lambert asked

"Prior to this meeting, I did have some conversations with
(Commissioner Bob Rountree) about some topics we were going to vote on today,"
Lambert explained.

Before everyone condemns poor Lumpy to the ash-heap again, people need to be reminded that we live in the land of sunshine hypocrisy. Chancellor Daryl Fansler doubtless interpreted the Open Meetings Act correctly, but the Open Meetings Act does not apply to the Tennessee General Assembly. There may actually be good reason for this.

Under the Fansler interpretation of the Open Meetings Act (which I deem to be correct), two Commissioners can't have any discussion outside of the Commission about county business. Literally, this means that one Commissioner isn't free to share with another what he or she is thinking or ask another Commissioner's advice (NOTE: I'm not talking about sharing votes or bargaining here, clearly that would be against the principle of open government or sunshine and is to be condemned). They can't even ask each other "what do you think about this-or-that."

The General Assembly didn't apply the sunshine law to themselves because if they didn't talk to one another, the whole place would cease to function effectively. Legislators share offices, eat in the same place each day, and bump into each other in the elevator every few minutes. Business never stops at the Capitol, even when the House or Senate are not in session or a committee isn't meeting. If the Open Meetings Act applied to the General Assembly as written, the General Assembly would be in perpetual violation. While in Nashville, I had the occasion to witness a conversation between two legislators about a bill. Because of the nature of the discussion, I could clearly see that this was an internal Caucus matter and didn't need to be aired in public, and there was no harm being done in not having this discussion before a hundred people-nothing was being hidden from anyone.

The hypocrisy comes from the reality that the General Assembly has imposed one set of rules for itself while imposing another set of rules for local governments in Tennessee. The Capitol is an open place where anyone who can find a parking space in downtown Nashville can come and go as they please. It is hard to say that the sun does not shine there when the place and the people in it are so accessable. The Legislature has not imposed rules upon itself that it collectively knows will hamper its ability to conduct public business. If not being able to have a conversation will hamper the General Assembly, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that it might impose upon county commissions ten hour meetings and numerous questions of whether they could say "that proposal sucks" to another commissioner?

I can see the headlines now: "OATNEY AGAINST OPEN GOVERNMENT." "WORLD OPPOSES SUNSHINE." The contrary is true, of course-you won't find a bigger advocate for open government and sunshine than me. Our sunshine laws need to be sensible and realistic, however, and we can't have one set of laws for local governments that doesn't apply to the State. What is good or bad for the goose is good or bad for the gander.

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