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New law director plans to liberate commission from Sunshine silence

Incoming County Law Director Bill Lockett announced Sunday on Tennessee This Week that his interpretation of the Sunshine Law and the Fansler injunction will be different from that of outgoing John Owings. This is good news. Owings' advice to County Commission is overly strict and has grown absurd.

Lockett has yet to try explaining "decide or deliberate" to commission, so his success conveying a more nuanced interpretation may fall short. Owings was correct in advising a strict "no talking" rule in the months preceding the trial, and the conviction made it hard to ease up. When Owings tried to offer looser restrictions, Commissioners Greg Lambert and Paul Pinkston wore him down with their staunch refusal to comprehend. No matter how many times he explained that commissioners could say hello in the grocery store, an obstinate few insisted they could not say hello in the grocery store, so finally Owings relented. If you can't understand what "deliberate" means, don't talk at all, he advised.

Perhaps a new messenger and the long months of not talking will crack the shell, and a commission that wants to operate openly can be born from the one scared to talk.

The state modified the law to permit county commissioners to communicate on a public Web forum, and Knox County launched its site on July 16. So far, only Commissioner Victoria DeFreese is using the forum to its full potential. Commissioner Elaine Davis has made good use of it as well, but the boys have been timid. The usual talkers—Lambert, Mark Harmon, Pinkston—have participated, but rarely has a dialogue broken out. Davis wondered aloud on Gene Patterson's show whether commissioners who have not posted yet are reading the forum.

The controversial management of the Solway green-waste collection site has generated the most conversation. Tests for evidence of coal ash in a mulch pile brought some two-dozen posts and a call for an emergency meeting, but the topic stalled waiting for technicians to take samples from the pile. Commissioner Lambert posted GPS coordinates of spots where he wanted them to drill. DeFreese reported seeing tires, ground tires, and twisted metal in a mulch pile pushed into a corner of the property away from the processing area.

DeFreese proved her willingness to research issues by posting links to studies and quoting from TDEC reports. She clearly relished her few months on the job. Had the 11-man commission done a more timely job filling the empty seats, she would have served longer. For that matter, had the first appointments not been rigged, she might have won the 9th District seat last January. I suspect she will start taking checks for her 2010 campaign before 2009 arrives. County term-limit provisions forbid a person from running more than once as an incumbent, so Pinkston cannot run in 2010. DeFreese will likely serve South Knoxville again.

Some of the threads on the commission forum have been big zeroes, topics introduced but left to die. DeFreese suggested a "team building" retreat in Walland. The next day Commissioner Bob Rountree politely noted that he and she would soon be off the team and might not be needed at such a gathering. No one else ever replied. Likewise, when Mark Harmon asked the two 8th District commissioners if a committee should be convened to recommend uses for the Thorngrove property once intended for a business park, he got no response. A judge ruled the Sector Plan amendment illegal, returning the business park to the realm of the hypothetical, but for new names on several deeds. Commission's role in that project has always been meek, so the silence is fitting.

The whole forum threatens to go silent when DeFreese and Davis leave. That would be a shame, because it is an excellent public resource. It can save time at meetings by starting discussions before the gavel falls, and it is an instant archive. Lockett should strongly encourage its use.