Haslam opposes weakening Tenn. open meetings law

Haslam opposes weakening Tenn. open meetings law

Posted: Friday, December 9, 2011 8:02 pm

By ERIK SCHELZIG
Associated Press
NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday that he opposes efforts to water down Tennessee’s open meetings law that prohibits city and county officials from deliberating about official business in private.
The Republican governor told reporters after a speech to the Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce that his previous experience as mayor of Knoxville gave him little reason to think an overhaul was necessary.
“Those rules actually worked, and led to better discussions at city council meetings,” Haslam said.
Tennessee lawmakers passed what is known as the state Sunshine Law governing public records and meetings in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in 1974.
Frank Gibson, public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association, applauded the governor’s stance.
“As a former sitting mayor, he sees the value and importance of public trust in government,” said Gibson, who is also the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, of which The Associated Press is a member.
Haslam’s position “reflects the sentiment shared by an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans who don’t want to roll back four decades of good government,” Gibson said.
The Tennessee County Commissioners Association has been promoting a change in the law to allow closed-door talks among officials as long as a quorum is not present.
Commissioners in Obion, Lewis and Williamson counties have passed resolutions urging state lawmakers to make the change, while similar measures have failed in Anderson and Rhea counties. Several other resolutions are pending in counties around the state.
“Obviously there are some folks that are convinced that that’s a way to maybe be more effective,” Haslam said. “But my experience was that it worked pretty well the way it is now.”
Haslam acknowledged that it’s difficult to explain why local governments fall under the state’s open government laws, while the state Legislature does not. But the governor said he doesn’t see a need for more secrecy in government.
“There is no way that’s a politically popular move,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a winning strategy.”
Advocates for local governments have argued that elected officials could fall under a cloud of suspicion for speaking to each other during casual encounters or at community events in their districts. But the law only bars private deliberations on public business, not all conversation or chance meetings.
The state Supreme Court in 1976 unanimously rejected a challenge to the open meetings law that claimed it was too vague about which discussions could be considered deliberative.
“It is our opinion that members of public bodies will face very few situations, if any, in which they cannot be aware … whether or not they are in the course of deliberation toward a decision on policy or administration affecting the conduct of the business of the people,” according to the ruling.
The Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper and nine citizens sued the Knox County Commission in 2007 for violating the state’s Open Meetings Act in deciding how to fill 12 vacated positions, including eight commission seats. The selections included relatives of commissioners and deputies of displaced officeholders who later hired back their former bosses.
The plaintiffs convinced a jury, and a judge threw out the appointments in what was the largest action of its kind in Tennessee history.

Published in The Messenger 12.9.11

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