CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Government officials in increasing numbers are violating Tennessee's open-meetings law, a tally of reported cases shows.
The count — 45 suspected offenses reported in the first 10 months of this year, 39 in 2004 and 31 in 2003 — also shows those same violators apparently don't think taxpayers and the public care.
The 45% increase over almost three years represents only those violations that have been reported, said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which conducted the count. The coalition was created in 2004 to protect and improve Tennessee's public-access laws. Members include the Tennessee Press Association, the state's major daily newspapers, the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, the Associated Press and Common Cause of Tennessee.
The increase in suspected public-meeting violations comes a year after the coalition conducted a statewide audit of public record compliance by local governments. That survey showed about a third of government agencies denied access to public records.
The effectiveness of Tennessee's open-meetings law ranks in the bottom five among U.S. states because it is "not enforceable," Gibson said. "Before [citizens] can even get an answer as to whether a meeting is covered by the Sunshine Law ... they have to go to court."
Tennessee's Sunshine Law carries little punishment, such as requiring public re-enactments of some public decisions made in secrecy, and the General Assembly is exempt from the open-meetings law.
In the wake of the Tennessee Waltz corruption scandal, a legislative ethics panel has proposed extending the open-meetings law to all meetings of the General Assembly when a quorum of lawmakers is present. The measure is part of broader ethics-reform package that lawmakers are expected to consider in a special session in January.
But the coalition report shows repeated problems with open-meetings compliance at the local level.
The Savannah (Tenn.) Courier in August 2004 reported the Hardin County Commission approving a $28 wheel tax on first reading at a meeting held with no advance public notice of any tax vote. Voters later reversed the wheel-tax approval in a referendum. The commission, after providing required public notice, voted again and approved a wheel tax.
So who cares if the open meetings law is violated?
Rick Hollow, an attorney for the Tennessee Press Association, said everyone should care.
"If we let one violation go along unchecked, and then we add another and another, we will have squandered our rights," Hollow said.
He said government officials who appreciate whom they work for should also care. "The public is your employer. They are entitled to know what you are doing with the trust they have given you."
Hollow said "another common misconception is that Sunshine Laws and open records laws are to protect the media.
The news media benefits but the "rights are guaranteed to all citizens of Tennessee," he said. "The people have a huge responsibility themselves to be sure their government is doing what they want it to do."
Tammy Ward, who organized Concerned Citizens of Elizabethton in eastern Tennessee, cares about the law. Ward describes herself as a business owner and mother of a senior at Elizabethton High School.
In November 2003, members of the Elizabethton school board met twice — hundreds of miles away from home at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville — to interview David Roper, a school official from Roanoke, Ala. The Elizabethton board hired Roper as director of schools.
Hollow has previously advised the Elizabethton Star that the meetings violated Tennessee's Sunshine Law requiring government officials to conduct decision making in the open. There was no advance notice of the meetings held during the Tennessee School Boards Association convention. The board did not provide notice in the Elizabethton newspaper.
A newspaper in a neighboring community reported the out-of-town meeting in its edition the day of the first meeting. Minutes show one of the board's meetings with Roper began at 10 p.m. Nov. 16 and adjourned at 1 a.m. Board members met again the following day, from 9 a.m. to noon.
Hollow, the press association's attorney, said that despite the apparent secrecy, there was no record of any action taken at the Nashville meeting that could be reversed.
Ward said the board made Roper's hiring official at a three-minute meeting in Elizabethton.
"They just rubber-stamped it," she said. "We are just wondering if this man was ever legally hired. That's a real big question."
The hiring displeased Ward and other community residents who supported then-Elizabethton High School principal Ed Alexander for the job. After Roper's hiring, Alexander was reassigned to work at an alternative school.
After Roper took the job, records show he had not met state requirements for fingerprint screening before he was hired.
Discontent over the hiring spilled over to other government meetings and prompted no confidence votes by the Elizabethton City Council and Carter County Commission in 2004.
Ward said no one has challenged the hiring because "people feel like they should not have to put up their own personal money to do it and nobody wants to cost the school system money."
Roper, who is still director of schools in the city of 13,000 residents, and the school board chairman, Bob Sams, did not return telephone messages seeking comment for this report.
"It has divided our community," Elizabethton Mayor Jamie McKinney said.
The City Council appropriates money for the schools budget but the district attorney has since advised the members to keep their distance from school business, she said.
McKinney said she was telling people that "when it is election time next November you need to voice your dissatisfaction at the polls."