Watchdogs of the Fourth Estate have made it their duty to report on the actions taken by local, state and federal government. And the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, or TCOG, was created to preserve and improve access to public information.
To be sure, a large majority of our public servants from elected officials to clerks in the city water department are honest and justifiably proud of the work they perform on our behalf. But it only takes one bad player to give everyone else a bad name.
Most of us are aware of the really bad actors who have been brought to justice after ripping off taxpayers. One extreme example is that of Bell, Calif., (pop. 38,000) where eight city officials were arrested and charged in September 2010, for taking millions of dollars in exorbitant salaries for themselves and literally driving the city into bankruptcy.
Fortunately, nothing of that magnitude has occurred in Tennessee, but stories of embezzlement, kickbacks and bribery have occurred here. Does anyone recall Operation Tennessee Waltz, a federal and state sting operation that resulted in indictments and prison time for state legislators and local officials in 2004-05?
In Tennessee, we take pride in the fact that the state’s Sunshine Law predates the national Sunshine Week by 31 years. In 1974, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the most comprehensive law in the nation to ensure that public business is conducted in full public view.
Here’s the essence of The Sunshine Law in Tennessee Code Annotated 8-44-101:
“The general assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
Unfortunately, just as there are exceptions to rules of grammar, Tennessee also allowed for limited exceptions to this open meetings policy when the Legislature defined public meetings in TCA 8-44-102:
“All meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, except as provided by the Constitution of Tennessee.”
A “governing body” can be any public board or commission that has “the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration and also means a community action agency which administers community action programs.”
It also covers a variety of boards of directors of associations, nonprofit or not-for-profit corporations, authorized and contracted to conduct business on behalf of the public.
OK, I know your mind is growing numb with the idea that this concept is not as straightforward as you had hoped. That’s where you come into the picture, because as a citizen, you have responsibilities to fulfill.
Most people don’ t think about the rates for water or trash pickup or property taxes until the rates go up.
Very simply, it is because representatives elected by YOU and your neighbors establish and maintain all the services you receive as a resident. Public schools, solid waste disposal, law enforcement and others all come with price tags set by boards and commission who represent you.
Yes, reporters from newspapers, television and radio stations generally report on most of those meetings of public boards and commissions. Ultimately, however, it is up to you to take the responsibility of knowing what your duly elected and appointed representatives are doing in your name.
You have the right to attend public meetings and you have the right to obtain the minutes of public meetings. All public bodies are required to post adequate notice in advance of their meetings about when and where the meetings are to be held. How much notice is adequate? That has not been clearly defined by state law.
No deliberations or decisions are allowed to be made outside public meetings. That means that a commissioner cannot ask other commissioners to meet with him to review proposals outside a called public meeting.
In today’s society with all its complexities, it is not feasible for every citizen to attend every public meeting of every public body in the community. It may not be possible with available resources for a newspaper or broadcast station to cover them all.
What’s the answer?
Support your primary local news sources, create or join a local neighborhood advocacy group and support groups that advocate for open government, such as TCOG.
If you have a question — any question — about the Sunshine Law or about access to public documents, TCOG is available to help.
(Editor’s Note: Kent Flanagan is executive director of TCOG. He can be reached by phone at 615-957-2825 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)