Sunsetting Sunshine

Russ McBee sees some rays of hope in the dimming Sunshine law “reform” that’s coming out of Nashville.

My view? Best thing that could happen now is to leave the totally ineffectual,  weak Tennessee Open Meetings law as is cause the reforms are worse. 


  1. You said it better than I did, Jack.
    I think the only change we actually need is to include some kind of specific, automatic, and expensive penalty for violations, rather than requiring a judge to wing it. Otherwise, the law should be enforceable as is.
    I’m not sure I would call it ineffectual, though; your paper’s own lawsuit ended up getting twelve people booted out of office and the remaining Commissioners held under threat of criminal contempt for future violations. That doesn’t really strike me as weak.
    I just wish the general public were more engaged and willing to vote; maybe then we’d be able to stop electing the kind of corrupt officials who want and need to deliberate in secret.
    If good, honest people were the rule in elective office rather than the rare exception, we wouldn’t even need a sunshine law.

  2. Well, you’re right. It did do that, but more often than not, people don’t have the money or time to go through the judicial guanlet on their own dime. Even for the News Sentinel, it was a daunting expense.
    I think what was so galling to the commissioners is they couldn’t believe the community, newspaper and the judicial system would hold them accountable for not observing the law. It had happened so rarely.
    It happens rarely because it takes a particularly egregious flaunting of the law to say damn the expense, they can’t do that.
    But what about their everydays ways of doing business?

  3. Yeah, it certainly is a failure of justice to require the most extreme violation to trigger any threat of consequences, and I suppose that’s a failure of the system. I’m not sure you could craft a law that would get around that problem, though.
    So many legal provisions, like FOIA or the Hatch Act, have teeth on paper but are hard and (as you noted) expensive to enforce, but I don’t see any alternative other than electing non-shady people to begin with.
    In the case of Knox County Commission, I think Chancellor Fansler’s ruling and order could end up changing “their everyday way of doing business” (unless the law is weakened as proposed).
    But even with that, it’s going to take an aggressively persistent media and an aggressively insistent public to keep them in line. Witness this week’s shenanigans reported in the KNS between Whitehead, Moore, and Ballard. Instead of conferring in private, they’re now using intermediaries as carrier pigeons.
    No law can make ill-mannered people behave. Only the voters and the media can do that.

  4. I sincerely hope that story results in a lawsuit; it would make the KNS sunshine suit look like a Sunday afternoon tea party. The allegation that campaign contributions changed hands at that private meeting makes it even more insulting to all of us.
    The only alternative I can think of is the peasantry storming the City/County Building with pitchforks and torches, but that’s not really a very appealing avenue. Short of that, lawsuits seem to be the only recourse we have.
    (While the KNS lawsuit was pending, my Dad suggested that we take our inspiration from the French Revolution and erect a (non-functioning) guillotine on the front lawn of the City/County Building, just to send a message. I thought that was pretty hilarious.)

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