editorial (2006-48)

OK, Open up in There

Leave these public matters open to citizen review

OK, Open up in There

Closed-door meetings of an elected governing body, such as Knox County Commission, ought to be very rare, says county Mayor Mike Ragsdale, and we agree.

We don’t think barring the public from a meeting contemplated by some members of Commission, including its chairman, Scott “Scooby” Moore, with county Law Director John Owings is warranted, and neither does the mayor. The commissioners want to hear Owings’ explanation of the ramifications of the state Supreme Court’s eagerly anticipated ruling on the validity of the county Charter in private.

Why? There is nothing expected in the ruling that should reflect anything other than the public’s business.

The Charter’s validity, and its amendments that established term limits for county officials, will affect not only the officials who may lose their positions, but also the voters who approved of both the 1989 Charter, giving the county municipal powers, and its 1994 term-limiting amendments.

There is no reasonable call for an executive session, as it is described by Owings, even though such a session is possible under state law in special circumstances involving legal issues, such as those that might arise when the county is being sued and a private attorney-client consultation is advisable.

In this instance, there is no justification for such privacy. It would be wise of Owings, who has been in office through appointment for only a few months, to remember that he serves not only the government but is also beholden to the people of Knox County who have a legitimate public interest in hearing his interpretation of the Supreme Court’s ruling as he presents it to Commission.

The term limits, which would vacate eight Commission seats, have never been enforced because of a questionable opinion from the state Attorney General’s office. And the entire Charter has been in limbo since Knox John Weaver ruled it “incomplete, invalid and ineffective” last June 9 on technical grounds. The county appealed Weaver’s decision to the Supreme Court and U.S. District Court Judge James Jarvis asked for an expedited Supreme Court process. Arguments were heard Sept. 6, and a ruling is expected at any moment. Some of the technical shortcomings that led to the chancellor’s decision were presumably fixed by a further voter referendum Nov. 7.

Voters have been involved in every step of the Charter’s development, and to shield them from the law director’s assessment of the court’s final decision by holding a private Commission session behind closed doors is an affront to the citizenry as a whole.

An explanatory session in full public view in the City County Building’s Large Assembly Room with full television coverage is warranted in this instance, and it should be open to Commission discussion, which Owings says would be prohibited by law in an executive session.

The Tennessee General Assembly did not pass its Open Government Law in 1974 to allow local governing bodies to conduct meetings in private. Quite the contrary.

The Sunshine Law, as it is known, is there to provide transparency to the business of governing. That law is up for revision, and a legislative committee has recently stalled any changes off until 2008 for reasons that are not altogether clear.

We can’t imagine though that any alteration to the Sunshine Law will allow for expanding the authority of government entities to go into executive session to hear legal opinions on anything other than pending lawsuits and legal obligations. But in these trying times, it’s almost plausible that such issues as the relevance of the Charter and term limits, which could also affect the offices of Sheriff, Trustee, County Clerk and Register of Deeds, may be considered matters of national security by the beleaguered bastions of government and withheld from public review.

Chairman Moore wants a private briefing on the Supreme Court’s holding he says so that “we don’t go out and tell people something that’s not true.”

We submit to the Commission chairman and to the law director that the best way to prevent public confusion over the soon-to-emerge Charter issues is to hold that briefing in the cold, gray light of day, with the public access TV cameras whirring and any interested members of the public invited to observe the proceedings in person.

If the commissioners opposed to such a public airing and the law director refuse to put the Sunshine Law above their personal and professional preferences, perhaps that issue itself should end up in court.