Partly Sunny: Audit Committee Adheres to the Letter, But Not the Spirit, of the State Sunshine Law

The Sunshine Law was never intended to be a strict edict against public officials interacting with each other. It offers general guidelines against conducting public business in private, but it does not draw bright lines. For starters, it prohibits “deliberation” and not mere contact or conversation. County commissioners should be free discuss the Vols or how to grow gladiolas whenever they please, and the Sunshine Law allows that.

Unfortunately, in the past, certain county commissioners proved themselves too dense to comprehend general guidelines. They needed crisp, yes/no rules to obey, so courts obliged them. Now we have rules governing every interaction among commissioners, and even interactions among members of different political bodies.

It’s a shame, but when you elect fools to office, you end up having to foolproof the government.

I prefer to interpret the Sunshine Law liberally, so I was surprised when the county’s Audit Committee managed to offend even me with its abuse of openness. They obeyed the letter of the law while stomping all over its spirit.

Chairman Joe Carcello convened one-on-one meetings with other committee members to discuss firing county auditor Richard Walls. Though Carcello issued public notices about the meetings, he did not specify what would be discussed.

Carcello excluded committee member Mary Kiser from these meetings, prompting her to resign in protest. Elisha Hodge, open-records counsel for the state, issued a report in response to an ethics complaint from Elaine Davis. The report said of Carcello, “he did not meet with a certain member of the committee because he felt that the member would side with the internal auditor, and ‘frankly, I was counting votes.’”

Carcello dined with Commissioner Broyles July 3 at Copper Cellar and Commissioner Wright July 5 at Panera Bread. With three votes assured on the five-member committee, deliberations were complete.

Counting votes outside a formal meeting is the definition of deliberation and exactly what the Sunshine Law prohibits. The public notices Carcello provided might keep him in line with notification laws, but he still conducted a public vote in private. He has since promised to submit minutes from these lunches to better comply with the Sunshine Law.

Kiser’s protest is justified and demands at least a censure vote against Carcello, if not his removal.

The shame of all this is that Carcello’s back-room maneuvering was not necessary. His intention to remove Walls was well known, and he was not alone. Walls’ work has been questioned a number of times, primarily over his choices of which departments to audit and how he released his findings.

Airing grievances against Walls publicly would not have broken new ground, and Carcello’s sneaky moves accomplished little more than humiliating Kiser and then himself.

Walls has since retired, and the county is now deciding whether to replace him or contract audit functions to a private firm. It is gospel among Republicans that privatization saves money, but reality has shown over and over that it actually invites corruption and profiteering. See Gov. Haslam’s tenure for numerous examples of private firms underperforming and overcharging for services once provided by public employees.

It would be best to have a public auditor nominated by the mayor or law director and approved by County Commission. To function effectively, an auditor should be given as much independence as possible. If the county opts to take the private route, it should do so on the assumption that this will cost more and require careful oversight.

Auditing is a profession with established best practices. Knox County ought to be able examine professional standards and act accordingly, but our track record inspires little confidence. I hope county leaders can take a step back and work from principle rather than jockeying for favors and favorites.

A powerful, independent auditor would help restore faith in county government.

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