We've Already Been Done-Over. Now What?

The Sunshine Law suit should clearly go to trial


It appears that an uncertain number of Knox County Commission members want to â“redoâ” the appointments of eight commissioners and four county office-holders that they performed in a series of back-room deals last Jan. 31.

Their motive seems to be that such an action might serve to moot the News Sentinel 's suit against them, pulling their charred feet from the fire, before they have to go to trial for violating the Tennessee Open Meetings â“Sunshineâ” Law.

Would restaging the Jan. 31 events without openly violating the law render the lawsuit, which has been joined by attorney Herbert Moncier's citizen plaintiffs, moot? It might, but it shouldn't. The violations would remain. The January tragi-comedy can't be erased. And it shouldn't be.

The Commission should have to face up to its crimes and take its hits from a jury and judge.

The Knox County Law Director, John Owings, is preparing a procedure for re-doing the appointments to present to the Commission next week. He has advised the commissioners that a trial would take at least three weeks at great county expense and that, if the Commission lost, it could be enjoined by the court from further violation of the Open Meetings Act. Such an injunction could mean that commissioners might face criminal contempt, not to mention further county expense.

Our position is that this Commission's majority needs the kind of instruction that a court injunction puts before them. Their reputation is such that if they accomplished a court-ordered remedy to their illegal appointments without further violation of the law, their community standing might actually improve. It couldn't get much worse.

If they do it on their own, without admitting the violation, they may be tempted to conduct their own little circus. Better they be under the scrutiny of a court that has ruled they violated the law.

Either way, what would have to transpire for a reappointment procedure to be legal, according to Owings, is that the former Commission's term-limited members would have to be reinstated. The eight who were replaced under a Supreme Court ruling would have to vote, along with the Commission's 11 members in good standing, on their replacements. The former commissioners would have to be sworn in and adequate notice given to the public that they were holding a special meeting to accomplish the successor appointments.

It sounds a little far-fetched that the appointments might change significantly, but the Commission would have to listen to public comment on those appointments in open session to fulfill the remedial requirements. They would be subjected to another round of intense lobbying by the county's political parties and their factions. And they would suffer through another round of condemnation by the broad segment of the public that favors open government, so anything might happen.

One virtual certainty is that the Republican faction once loyal to county Mayor Mike Ragsdale has been effectively emasculated by scandal within the executive office.

That could mean simply another victory for the faction loyal to former Sheriff Tim Hutchison, or it could mean that public annoyance at the conflict between the Commission and administration has induced some commissioners to change their strategy and look for independent holders of the offices, pending the February 2008 primary election, when they go up for grabs again.

In Tuesday's meeting of the Commission's Finance Committee, following the redo discussion in the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, Commissioner Paul Pinkston urged that the intergovernmental issues not be raised again because, he said, â“We don't know what we're doing here.â”

Before anyone suggests that Pinkston's words may have been taken out of context by us, we should point out that the context was a Knox County Commission meeting, and that alone proves their validity.

Let's hope that what the Commission is doing is settled by a judge and jury, rather than defined at the Commission majority's own volition. They had their chance, and they blew it. We have little confidence that they have reformed, especially when Pinkston, one of those whose own admissions show he participated in Sunshine violations, utters such outrageous statements as â“We've done nothing wrong.â”

We're watching, but we're still aghast at the effrontery we suffered Jan. 31.

They already did us; now they want to do us again?


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