When word leaked out about confidentiality agreements between Norfolk Southern and local elected representatives in Jefferson County it created a lot of debate. [Ear to the Ground, July 9 and Aug. 13, 2009; "Surprise Development" by Chris Barrett, Sept. 31, 2009] I worked for several years with U.S. government contracts and subcontracts, and I understand such agreements are sometimes necessary. The irony is that the negotiations about the confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement often took almost as much time as the overall contract negotiations, and the contract negotiations went on even as the battle over the language of the agreement was happening. To the best of my knowledge, no one who falls under the Tennessee Sunshine Laws has provided a copy of the agreement they signed with Norfolk Southern, but Norfolk Southern provided a copy of what they use as a standard confidentiality agreement. As with most, there are several things I'd change before signing, but without a copy of the actual signed documents there's no way of knowing what they contain. In some ways I'm more concerned about how the situation was handled locally.
A confidentiality agreement isn't signed by an individual, but rather as an individual representing an organization. In the case of Alan Palmieri, it's understandable since he's the county mayor, and that's a stand-alone position. In the case of the County Commissioners, the Industrial Board, and perhaps others, I'm troubled by the fact individuals signed agreements without gaining consensus from or even notifying the other members of the board or committee they gave the appearance of representing. In all cases the agreements were signed without review by the county attorney, and buried within a lot of fancy language are some things that create significant financial risk for Jefferson County. Possibly even more of a concern is this has become standard practice in Jefferson County. Even funding requests to the state or federal government are submitted without the knowledge or consensus of the submitting board or committee.
In many ways, citizens get one chance to elect someone to represent them in the county, and that's through the county commission and county mayor positions. Beyond that, most boards and committees are staffed based on nominations and elections by the commission, and further removes the citizens from the process. It's a valid process and structure, and anything else would be cumbersome and unworkable. But it's a system that is easily undermined when the boards and committees cease to function in that capacity, and instead become the actions of specific individuals. It ceases to be a system at all when my one vote for my one voice through a commissioner is silenced.