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Leaders unlikely to support weakening of sunshine law

As the president of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association mounts a statewide campaign to get state legislators to weaken the sunshine law, it appears local leaders are unlikely to hop on board.
“I think the sunshine law helps protect the public and keeps them informed. It’s really never been an issue,” said Greg Matherly, chair of the Washington County Commission. “We try to do things as openly as law requires. I think the more discussion we have at meetings and the more open government is, the better off we all are.”
Under a proposal by Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, any number of members of a county commission, school board or city council – up to a quorum – could meet and discuss public business. The public would only have to be given notice if a quorum of the body was present.
So for example, 12 members of the 25-member Washington County Commission could meet and discuss issues without it being considered a meeting. That’s because a quorum there is 13.
“Without having any discussion as an entire body – I would be concerned about that. You would have a lot of legislation from the floor of the commission that would have already been decided on,” Matherly said. “Other members wouldn’t have gotten to put their input in. We would lose something there.”
Under the 37-year-old sunshine law, two or more members of a government body may not get together in private to “deliberate” toward a decision. If it can be proven in court that they did, the decision in question can be voided by a judge or jury.
Tennessee’s sunshine law was passed in 1974. Nothing in the law prevents two members of a governing body from talking to one another, so long as they are not deliberating or conducting public business.
A campaign surfaced in early September to change the law when the Shelbyville Times-Gazette reported on a regional TCCA meeting where Barnwell complained that local elected officials have to operate under rules that are different than those that apply to the state’s General Assembly.
Under rules of the House and Senate, a quorum has to be present for a gathering to be considered a “meeting.”
Now, Barnwell reportedly is urging county commissions across the state to endorse his proposal with resolutions that ask their local state representatives and senators to support the measure when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
“I have not heard any sentiment expressed that this law has to be changed, so I doubt it would get a huge endorsement from the commission,” said John Rambo, county attorney. “I don’t think it would be a good idea at all.”
Matherly agreed, saying it would be moving “backwards” for the commission.
“Really, the committee system we have does the same thing as this is talking about. Giving the opportunity for something to go through committees gives commissioners time to look at it and discuss it (before voting on it at a full commission meeting),” he said. “I think the route we’re going right now is the way to go. Sometimes it takes a lot of people’s input to make something work.”
And Matherly doesn’t just want input from elected officials.
County leaders currently are looking at increasing citizen participation in local government, too, by creating a “citizen comment” portion at their monthly meetings.
“Citizens have the opportunity to be informed right now through open, public meetings,” Matherly said. “We wouldn’t want to change any laws that would keep citizens from being informed. I don’t want to go backwards here.”
When contacted late last week, State Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) said he had not heard of the proposal to change the sunshine law.
“I’m pretty in touch with our leaders and nobody has mentioned anything at all,” Hill said in a phone interview. “As of right now, no, I wouldn’t think it would be likely to pass.”
Still, Hill said he isn’t “really one way or the other” on the issue.
“I’ve never had to vote on it. To be fair about it, I’d have to take a look at the final draft to see what exactly it is saying,” Hill said. “But what we’re talking about right now, is some guy in Middle Tennessee who maybe, sorta might want to do something to change the law.”
Frank Gibson, Executive Director
of the Tennessee Coalition for Open
Government, contributed to this report.