Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

Legislation by loophole is a violation of the public trust

In Advocacy on January 24, 2014 at 1:21 am

Some big corporate fat cat finds loopholes in the tax code and pays virtually no income taxes despite making millions and living a lavish lifestyle.

A successful high-profile hedge fund manager finds ways to benefit from proprietary information and grow personal investments without technically being guilty of insider trading.

A large commercial developer knows all the strings to pull and buttons to push to get permits to do work without the same kind of scrutiny that an individual builder finds constraining and sometimes prohibitive.

Or, a flimflam artist finds ways to bilk state and federal public assistance programs for tens of thousands of dollars, qualifying for benefits by being a little less than honest, but can’t really be convicted of illegality.

None of them have really violated the law.

They operate on the fringes.

They benefit from loopholes.

So, how do we feel about these things?

Largely, we do not think they should be rewarded for their ingenuity, craftiness and deceit.

Rather, most common, ordinary people feel violated.

And, we should.

When people look for loopholes in the law, their obvious intent is to get by with as much as they possibly can without going to jail.

When elected officials legislate by loophole while it may not technically constitute a violation of the law, it absolutely violates the public trust.

It is not exactly a secret that city and county officials use technicalities and loopholes to get around the state’s Open Meetings Act.

When attorneys instruct their clients on how to deliberate the public’s business in private without technically violating the Sunshine Law, it is obvious there is a total disregard for the public’s right to know.

What is commonly known as vote-getting is just wrong.

The Open Meetings Act basically requires that any time members of an elected body meet then it constitutes a legal meeting, that must be open to public following an adequate public notice.

So, some have interpreted that to mean that any number less than a quorum can meet and deliberate all they want. They are wrong. Deliberations of public business should always happen in front of the public.

What transpires when a non-elected government professional calls and polls members or when just a couple members of an elected body deliberate over coffee, it becomes a bit of a game, or at least a tactic, that elected officials use to circumvent the public notice and public meeting requirements.

It amounts to vote-getting.

While officials think they are being clever, they are actually being dishonest and disingenuous.

Citizens have every right to know everything their elected government is doing and why they are doing it.

It is not enough to merely vote on every piece of legislation in public.

Deliberations should lake place before the public as well, whether it is at a public work session or in the regular meeting itself.

When a city council, county commission or board of education comes to a meeting, someone makes a motion, another makes a second, then they vote on some significant piece of business with no discussion, no description, no debate, it is obvious they are practicing loophole legislation.

Why even look for loopholes in the law if everything you are doing is on the up and up?

— Tennessee Transparency Project Director Jim Zachary

Government retreats show disregard for citizens

In Advocacy on January 14, 2014 at 4:52 pm

It is that time of year again. It is retreat season.

Local governments are planning their out-of-town all-day or two-day retreats where they get together and discuss their respective legislative agendas for the rest of the year.

To be fair, they give public notice and the public is welcome to attend.

We should also say the ordinary practice of city and county government of holding out-of-town retreats is not illegal.

Despite those facts, it is very poor public service to discuss the people’s business in another city.

Taking the people’s business away from the people, while not a violation of the law, is a violation of the public trust.

When city councils, county commissions and boards of education go to another city or county for a retreat, they know citizens will not follow them.

Most of them likely do not even consider the implications of the practice or think about the message it sends to the people they are chosen to represent.

Citizens not only have the right to know what decisions their elected officials reach, they have every right to know how they reach those decisions.

Deliberations of the public’s business should always be before the public.

The fact they send out notices of those out-of-town gatherings does not mean they are really accessible.

Whether they admit it or not, the retreats often give them the opportunity to be more candid on things they would not want to discuss in public.

The only thing they really seem to be retreating from is the very public they are elected to represent.

Those elected to office will adamantly defend their standing practice of annual retreats.

That defense will most likely center around the argument that state law allows it.

That begs the question — should you do everything or anything you can do or want to do, just because it is not illegal?

Those holding office need to ask themselves why they ran for office, why they chose public service and why they feel the need to go to a nice out-of-town conference center to do what they could do at home, in their own city.

A true public servant seeks public office to serve the public.

The public is best served by openness, accessibility, transparency and amenability.

Local government keeps moving farther and farther away from the people.

The entire mindset of our elected officials needs to change.

The more open you are, the more accessible you are, the more public trust you will build.

The more you go off on retreats, hide behind the closed doors of an executive session or even whisper to one another during meetings, the more people will be suspicious and the less they will trust you with their business.

It should also not go without saying, these out-of-town retreats are on the public dime.

It should also be noted that an out-of-town business is benefiting from the amount of money spent on the retreat, rather than a local one. 

Citizens should show up at regular city, county and board of education meetings and demand more openness.

Then, during elections vote for officials who pledge openness. But, then again, they all pledge and promise openness, don’t they?

— Editor Jim Zachary