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Posts Tagged ‘Open Meetings’

Kingsport Times News keeping an eye on Sunshine violations in Sullivan County

In Advocacy on June 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm

The Kingsport Times News in Sullivan County is keeping its eye on elected officials who have skirted or perhaps just plain violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. KTN’s John Osborne reported this week, “A group of Sullivan County commissioners who violated state law last month by throwing the public out of a public meeting has revisited the issue to make sure their actions can’t be challenged. Earlier this week, County Attorney Dan Street led members of the Sullivan County Commission’s Executive Committee through the steps he said were needed to make sure the committee’s violation of Tennessee’s “Sunshine Law” would not jeopardize the legal settlement the group discussed behind closed doors last month. Street was not included in that closed meeting. The Executive Committee’s regular monthly meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. May 1. But at that time, committee members said the group needed first to go into “executive session” and asked all non-members to leave the room. They went on to meet with the county’s risk management officer and an insurance claims adjuster — then let the public back in before quickly voting simply to approve the settlement as discussed in private. No details, such as what claim or how much money was involved, were made public. When members gathered Tuesday for the committee’s June meeting, Street told them they needed a do-over because last month’s vote could be challenged on the basis it violated the Sunshine Law. Some members argued it did not. Street told them any local governmental body may only exclude the public to discuss legal strategy with the body’s attorney — and that once that discussion ended, any subsequent action had to be taken in public, and include at least some basic details describing the action. Street also explained that the exclusion isn’t spelled out in state law, per se, but is recognized only because of a Tennessee Supreme Court decision that aimed to preserve attorney-client privilege. Without an attorney present during last month’s closed-door “executive session,” Street said, the committee clearly violated the Sunshine Law,” (Kingsport Times News, June 6, 2012).

Local governments would benefit from advisors like Street who seek compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Act, rather than lawyers who seem more bent on guiding them in how to get around the Act.

Commissioners accused of texting during meeting

In Advocacy on June 5, 2012 at 6:50 pm

East Tennessee journalist Carolynn Elder writes, “Following the May meeting of the Hawkins County Commission, the newspaper received a call from an elected official asking, “Are you aware of the commissioners who are texting during commission meetings?” That is a question that does not require an answer from a newspaper dedicated to openness in government. The caller went on to say that it has been going on for some time and he had been anticipating newspaper coverage of the issue. In addition to the impropriety of the action and possible breech of ethics associated with such actions, legal issues arise from the inability to archive the communication surrounding a public meeting, the very essence of the open meetings laws. The state of Tennessee has said, in essence, the public owns all records of government meetings and must have access to them at request. No longer are clandestine phone calls and private meetings the only ways to hide the public’s business. Now emails, social media and texting can be hidden from those the officials are elected to represent. Tennessee Code Annotated states, “No chance meeting, informal assemblages, or electronic communication shall be used to decide or deliberate public business in circumvention of the spirit or requirements of this part.”(T.C.A. 8-44-102 (iii) C). States in which legal action has taken place include Florida, Michigan and New Jersey. Texting during meetings has been banned in countless municipalities across the nation. 

A complete report will published Wednesday at http://www.hawkinstoday.com

 

Are news laws needed just to require lawmakers to follow the law? Press Association survey says…

In Advocacy on May 23, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Tennessee laws requiring transparency in local government are not that bad when compared to other states. The hypocrisy of the General Assembly effectively exempting itself from the state’s Open Meetings Act, however, is another story. With respect to laws applying to local government, the single most important change to protect the rights of citizens of Tennessee would be enacting some real penalties for violations of the Act. For example, this year the Georgia General Assembly approved $1,500 to $2,500 fines for public officials who violate their state’s Open Meetings Act or Open Records Act. With respect to state government, the clearest path to protecting citizens by providing unfettered access to their own government in Tennessee would be holding state officials to the same standards required of county commissioners, city aldermen and local school board members. Recently the Nevada Press Association (NPA) took a proactive approach to lobbying for improved government transparency by conducting a poll of candidates for the state legislature, gauging their views on openness in state government.    According to “Carson Now,” the NPA survey was intended to give the voters a chance to find out where candidates stand on transparency issues including public records, open meetings and campaign finance reforms. Lawmakers may not care all that much about transparency, but citizens do, and voters have every right to know where would-be public servants stand on issues that matter to them. The great incongruity, whether in Nevada or Tennessee, is how any elected official can justify a lack of complete transparency in local and state government while claiming to be a public servant. Government does not belong to the elected. It belongs to those doing the electing and to all citizens of a city, county or state. The “Carson Now,” article stated, “Sixty state lawmakers and legislative candidates who responded to the survey largely favor new laws requiring the Legislature to follow the Open Meeting Law.” Now isn’t that something? Candidates and lawmakers favor new laws requiring the legislature to follow the law.

City managers are not a way around Sunshine Law, despite recent media report in Memphis

In Advocacy on May 9, 2012 at 1:31 am

A report by The Commercial Appeal’s Cindy Wolfe, Memphis, headlined “Suburban managers run cities behind scenes,” touts the city manager form of local government and suggests, “While the mayor and board members are the public faces of their suburbs, administrators are behind the scenes making sure the town runs smoothly. They’re the ones who hire and fire employees, oversee creation of the annual fiscal budget and report directly to the mayor and aldermen. They can provide information to elected officials individually without violating the Sunshine Law” (http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2012/mar/27/suburban-managers-run-cities-behind-scenes/).  That may or may not be true. In fact, if those city managers are acting as go-betweens or intermediaries between the elected officials to share information used to deliberate city business, they most likely are violating the state’s Open Meetings Act. The idea that a non-elected person can carry information back and forth between elected officials to circumvent the Sunshine Law is a very common misnomer. It does not help the situation any when the media buys into the misconception. The larger question is why would any elected official ever want to find a way around conducting the public’s business in public?

Patriots explain why government transparency matters

In Advocacy on May 7, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Patriots explain why government transparency matters

TEA Party Patriots have done an excellent job of describing why local government transparency matters. The Patriots also identify a very real problem that citizens face when they believe they are electing people who understand the importance of open government, only to be disappointed later: “Every candidate promises more transparency if elected, and yet post-election actions never quite seem to match up with the pre-election rhetoric. Unfortunately, government transparency seems to exist solely at the discretion of public officials. The burden, more often than not, rests on the shoulders of citizens and journalists looking for basic information about their government.” The Patriots have also clearly seen that excuses offered by officials for a lack of transparency carry little weight, “Officials used to be able to hide behind excuses such as cost and time when they had to provide printed documents, but with technology today, sharing information with constituents has never been easier, quicker, or cheaper. Some factions of society try to define transparency as exposing how you, a private citizen, spend your money. However, authentic transparency is defined as exposing how the government spends taxpayer money. Governments have an obligation to proactively disclose information about how they are conducting the public’s business, and it is through proactive disclosure that voters are able to hold public officials accountable.” Sometimes TEA Party folks can be a little too myopic and may not always see the forest through the trees. However, recognizing that health care is not the only issue that matters, some TEA Party Patriots have taken note of the fact that a lack government transparency is systemic of an irresponsive, ineffective, non-representative government, at any level. More clearly, “Government transparency isn’t as ‘hot’ of a topic as health care, for instance, but almost every political and governance problem can be traced back to a lack of transparency.”

http://www.teapartypatriots.org/resources/transparency/

Quick meetings and unanimous decisions should raise red flags with citizens, with local media

In Advocacy on May 4, 2012 at 1:22 am

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen in Rogersville, located in Hawkins County, is poised to pass the first reading of its FY2012-13 budget the first of next week after having just had one public budget workshop with little debate over appropriations. Anytime public officials make quick decisions with a wink and a nod and virtually no discussion, it cannot help but raise concerns. The BMA there has a history of quick meetings with quick decisions that more often than not are unanimous votes with little to no discussion. A recent audit of those monthly meetings showed five, 10 and 15 minute meetings that included approval of minutes, community recognitions for a city beautification award, announcements and little else. It is reasonable for citizens of that municipality to wonder when and where decisions about public business are being made. An editorial headlined “Quick budget raises questions: All discussions must be public,” can be found on Tennessee Transparency Project by selecting the tab EDITORIALS FOR PUBLICATION. Tennessee Transparency Project makes all the editorials under that heading available for free publication. The editorials can be used in part, in their entirety or just used for ideas or verbiage and may be published with or without attribution in the interest of greater transparency in local governments throughout Tennessee.

Budgets must be vetted in public; all drafts and worksheets are public records

In Advocacy on May 3, 2012 at 2:30 am

As every county commission, board of mayor and aldermen and board of education drafts its FY2012-13 budget, every budget deliberation, every workshop and every hearing must take place in open public meetings. Any discussions among elected officials regarding the tax levy must take place in those meetings and not in private conversations among elected members of the governmental body prior to or outside of the posted meeting. If city recorders, mayors, directors of schools, office staff, finance directors or any one else is acting as a go-between or intermediary relaying messages back and forth between aldermen, commissioners or board members in an attempt to circumvent the Open Meetings Act, they are out of compliance with the law. Additionally, citizens should know that all budget documents are public records. It is not uncommon for officials to deny a request for budget worksheets and drafts saying they are “works in progress,” and are not public records. They are wrong. The worksheets, the budget drafts or any budget documents handed to, mailed to or emailed to public officials are public records and must be made available for inspection during normal business hours or duplicated in a timely manner when a citizen of the state of Tennessee requests the documents. There is no obligation in the law requiring the records requestor to prove the documents are public records. In fact, any records custodian or office staff member that denies a public record is legally required to provide a legal basis for the denial. It does not have to be a member of the media who gains access to those records. All citizens have full rights of access to all public records.

General Assembly members huddle over budget at restaurant, Associated Press says

In Advocacy on April 23, 2012 at 5:12 pm

The Associated Press State Wire reported Monday that members of the Tennessee General Assembly met together at a Nashville eating establishment over the weekend to hammer out details as they work to finalize the state budget. With no public, no press and likely few dissenting voices, state legislatures did what would be illegal for county commissioners, city councilmen or members of a local board of education. However, the General Assembly exempts itself from the Open Meetings Act. AP’s Erik Schelzig wrote, “Tennessee lawmakers’ long tradition of meeting secretly to hash out budget plans is alive and well.” In contrast, local lawmakers are prohibited, by law, from deliberating any of the public’s business in private (T.C.A. 8-44-101).

Consent agenda can be hidden agenda

In Advocacy on April 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Consent agendas are not illegal. However, a consent agenda can be used as a tool to retard public discussion of public policy or unpopular spending. In a demonstration that he no longer wants financial items buried on a consent agenda and not openly discussed in public meetings, a Northeast Tennessee Board of Education Chairman had all expenditures that had been included on the BOE’s consent agenda removed and voted on separately last week. A consent agenda is simply a bundle of items voted on, without discussion, as a package. The original intent of the consent agenda was to facilitate meetings by bundling the non-controversial, routine matters that amount to little more than housekeeping measures for the elected body. However a review of items can often reveal expenditures and even changes to public policy, technically voted on in public and recorded in the official meeting minutes, but never discussed. The agendas beg watching and are public records.

Citizens should watch legal fees in local budgets

In Advocacy on April 9, 2012 at 6:16 pm

A NET News Service report by Gary B. Gray this week highlights escalating legal fees paid out by local governments in Northeast Tennessee. The report indicates Johnson City pays a staff attorney a $63,126 salary, while also paying out $55,334 to a separate law firm last year. The report also includes figures from Washington County totaling $285,688 to one attorney in legal fees last year. Gray wrote that in Elizabethton the city pays out about $36,000 in hourly rates in addition to a $16,000 retainer fee for legal services. Unicoi County pays out $1,500 each month in retainer fees, the report indicated. As cities, counties and boards of education work on 2012-13 budgets, citizens and local media should be making public records requests now for the current year’s budget, along with budget worksheets that are being submitted from department heads back to local government. Citizens interested in local government spending have full access to the budget documents and might have an interest in particular line items including (1) legal fees; (2) legal services; (3) contracted services; (4) consulting; (5) other services; (6) miscellaneous; and (7) other. The monies dolled out are taxpayer dollars and citizens have every right to access budgets to know how the funds are allocated. All local budget workshops and hearings are open, public meetings and public notice must be given in advance of those meetings.