A special legislative committee hearing public testimony on improving the stateâ’s Open Records/Open Meetings (Sunshine) Laws is getting more ideas on how and why to closet government away from its citizens than how and why to give government records and meetings a full public airing.
Itâ’s ironic that the arguments in favor of closed â“executiveâ” sessions for elected legislative bodies are being made as the Knox County Commission undergoes court scrutiny in a jury trial over its backroom deals that led to its Black Wednesday appointments of successors to term-limited office-holders last January.
It is true that life would be less complicated for government officials if they were allowed to keep their records from public view and that the business of legislating and determining public policy was conducted without submitting the process to the criticisms of pesky citizens or the news media.
But that sort of secrecy is not what the people want from their government. Tell that to the officials of the Tennessee Municipal League and the Tennessee County Commissioners Association whoâ’ve been lobbying the study committee, composed of legislators and private citizens, to allow them more leeway to close some local government records and meetings of legislative bodies.
The stateâ’s 1974 Open Records and Open Meetings statutes may be in need of some updating, which was the impetus behind the formation of the study committee. What they donâ’t need is to be gutted by the Legislature, which passed those laws but is not bound by them.
Itâ’s a shame that attorney Richard Hollow, the Knoxville First-Amendment specialist who once represented the Tennessee Press Association and helped write the Open Meetings and Open Records laws, was tied up in the Sunshine Law trial in Knox County last week and couldnâ’t be in Nashville to defend the notions of government transparency that led to the legislation in the first place.
The Tennessee Open Government Coalition was there to present its position that some sort of civil penalty or fine be instituted to punish violators and to provide that attorneysâ’ fees be awarded to litigants who prevail in court when they challenge government officials over unlawful secrecy.
Instead of gaining a recommendation from the study committee for such penalties, the 2008 session of the General Assembly may end up hearing a call for more exemptions from the current laws. Letâ’s let the committee hold a hearing on the subject here in Knox County in the current climate. We should be able to muster support for tighter, rather than looser, controls on government secrecy in light of whatâ’s been transpiring here.
The arrest of a suspect in the senseless slaying of ETSU student Johnia Berry in her West Knox County apartment in December 2004 ends a search that consumed thousands of hours of investigation and led to the enactment of a state law establishing a DNA database.
The Knox County Sheriffâ’s Department detectives who led the investigation must be commended for their tenacity. Interagency cooperation with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement offices was also an important factor in identifying the suspect.
Mike and Joan Berry, the victimâ’s parents, led the effort to get the Tennessee General Assembly to pass whatâ’s now known as the â“Johnia Berry Law,â” mandating that a database be set up to contain DNA samples taken from people convicted of crimes of violence.
Knox Sheriff J.J. Jones says the database was not the source of evidence against the murder suspect, a 22-year-old Knoxville man, but that the law resulted in the hiring of more laboratory technicians to process DNA tests, which was helpful in resolving the DNA questions raised in the case much more quickly than in the past, allowing the TBI to expedite the requested tests.
The arrest and evidence also clears Johnia Berryâ’s former roommate, Jason Aymami, who was injured in the attack, from the cloud of suspicion that has hounded him for the nearly three years the case has remained open.
Sheriff Jones says heâ’s confident that the evidence will lead to a conviction. Itâ’s another reminder that the time-worn expression, â“Murder will out,â” applies more often that not, despite lengthy delays in establishing a suspect and the evidence to solve such a heinous crime.
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