Wed
Nov 7 2007
07:55 am
By: R. Neal  shortURL

Knoxville City Council passed the resolution opposing any changes to the state's Sunshine Law. Rachel notes in comments that all Council members voted for the resolution and signed on as sponsors.

It's my view that the only change needed to the Open Meetings Act is a clear definition of "deliberate" for those who don't seem to get it.

And maybe stiffer penalties for violations, but there won't be any violations if there aren't any secret deliberations.

My dictionary says the definition of deliberate in this context is:

4. to weigh in the mind; consider: to deliberate a question.
6. to consult or confer formally: The jury deliberated for three hours.

To me, this means that the following is deliberation:

"I think this zoning request should be denied because it will increase traffic in the neighborhood. You should vote against it too. What does Jack think? Can we get him to go along?"

The following is not deliberation:

"This rezoning will increase traffic in the neighborhood. How's the coffee?"

What do y'all think?

239
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Mike Cohen's picture

Open meeting law

The problem is not the definition of "deliberate." I think that would be fairly easy to establish.

The problem is passing the smell test. Say two members of a governing body meet and talk about nothing but personal stuff. No issues...no deliberations. The media hears they met and calls to check. They say no issues were discussed. If a story gets printed it contains their denials and, even with a fair and fairly written story, they look suspect.

Even with the sample you give you are basically outlining a way for members to kind of circumvent the law. Not good.

It's a great law. Open meetings and public input invariably make government better. It would be great to have some legitimate wiggle room...I personally would like district-mates to be able to discuss district issues with each other, but getting there without looking guilty is going to be a real challenge and may be impossible.

Another unintended result is empowering Mayors and lobbyists. A Mayor can sit down one on one with every member of the legislative body and try and work things out. Lawmakers can't do the same with each other...which weakens the checks and balances. Lobbyists (and I do some lobbying) can go and talk with each member of a body, but members of the body can't do the same.

It's a good law. I supported it as a journalist (the first half of my career) and as a bureaucrat. But it creates some problems, too. We probably just have to live with the problems.

R. Neal's picture

Good points all.In my

Good points all.

In my example, I'm thinking of it in the same way a jury trial works.

During trial phase, evidence, or "facts" are presented. There's no argument by lawyers or deliberation by the jury allowed.

Then the lawyers get to make a final argument, and once all the facts are in the jury deliberates.

Of course, the big difference is that the jury deliberates in secret, but the concept is the same. It's possible to discuss and share information without deliberating.

But I guess the problem with anything like this is that it's on the honor system, and as you note even when they honor the system it's easy to create suspicion and doubt.

Sandra Clark's picture

irony

For years the Knox County Commission has operated in backrooms and bars and on golf courses. Reporters have seen deals cut to appoint judges -- more judges now serving in Knox County initially reached the bench via appointment than election. We've watched the "committee on committees" appointed during Commission's reorganization, walk to the corner of the room, chat for a minute and return to set the fate of every committee and commissioner for the next year. I've personally witnessed the just-named chair pull a list from his coat pocket and read them off -- no give and take -- just a winner-take-all mentality.

What made Jan. 31 different was the scope -- 12 appointments at once. The Commission didn't do anything differently than they'd ever done. They just did it with more eyes on them. They blew it. And here we are. -- s.

WhitesCreek's picture

AS if...

Say two members of a governing body meet and talk about nothing but personal stuff. No issues...no deliberations.

Mike...From my personal knowledge and observations, I'd say such a scenario may not, in fact, have ever occurred.

Of course there are problems with certian aspects of the open meetings laws...Fine by me, if officials have to be squeaky clean to avoid even the appearance of wrong doing. Let's just conduct the public's business in public...Period.

reform4's picture

Sandra's point is

Sandra's point is well-taken, and it's the source of a lot of anger in the people I've talked to. It's my impression that if Commission is to restore any degree of trust, it is going to have to go way overboard in efforts to be open.

Personally, I could have sat back and just thrown my support behind whoever I thought was the next good candidate from the active political scene. But I think that outsiders/fresh blood (as well as some major reforms) are the key to restoring a degree of confidence in Commission. Honestly, it doesn't have to be me. If someone came to me and said they could guarantee six new faces on Commission in 2008, unconnected to any factions, and the reforms I'm pushing for-- but I'd have to drop out for that to happen, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Mike's point is well-taken as well. The same though brought me to the idea of an online diary of meetings for Commmissioners (fellow commissioners and otherwise). The idea that they would have to be proactive about announcing any discussion (rather than waiting to be asked), as well as giving the citizens an overall view of how they get their information, would also go a long way to avoiding suspicions, restoring trust and opening government.

-----------------------------------------
Fighting for Reform and Representation, Fourth District
Steve Drevik, Commission Seat 4-B
(link...)

Stan G's picture

The System May Be Broken, But Changing the Law Isn't The Fix

I find Mike’s “smell test” to be a little extreme. For instance, as I walked across Market Square one day last year, I spotted Joe Hultquist and Chris Woodull lunching at Oodles. I doubt that it was a chance meeting, yet I spotted no reporters, news photographers, nor TV camera folks. It simply was not a news worthy event.

As for two members of a legislative body meeting to discuss issues, what’s the problem as long as they don’t attempt to come to an agreement (or deliberate) their individual votes? And, what if they do, it most instances two does not constitute a majority. To achieve a majority, they have to influence others: those they influence probably would have voted their way in any case and those they don’t can claim a violation of the sunshine law.

Any legislator worth his salt, in light of the current law, is going to have a third person present to whom they address their comments or is going to have a third person call the other legislator in the attempt to influence that person’s vote.

As Randy concludes, it’s strictly an honor system

The one good thing about being pessimistic is - at least it shows you understand the situation. -- Unknown

Mike Cohen's picture

Open Meeting

Whites Creek:

There is absolutely no doubt such meetings have happened. A lot of these folks get to be friends serving together. Commission affairs don't take up their entire life.

That said, I am not advocating for not having a strong, tough open meeting law. I thought I was pretty clear about that. It not only makes for good government, it makes government better.

An online discussion is another option, but I find that electronic dialogue often lacks context...it is far too open to interpretation because you can't tell if someone is being joking or being strident. The one rule I'd suggest for such a forum (as opposed to this one) is that no one be able to post without giving their actual identity. The level of hatefulness and overly extreme thinking is too high when people don't have to say who they are. Make it like a public meeting...if you want go give a formal opinion in a formal setting, state who you are. Other forms are fine without it. I realize that anonimity cuts both ways...it lets people speak without fear of retribution. But it can also be a digital mask for hateful remarks that no one would make if they had to give their name.

Carole Borges's picture

One thing that stinks is

One thing that stinks is when a couple of people meet to share information the whole committee should have known about as soon as possible. So many rumors, ploys, gossipy tid-bits and even solid facts only get shared after individuals in a committee have shared and discussion new information privately.

It's maddening to hear someone in a meeting say," I was talking to Joe about this the other day. According to the new report he received, we both agree we should demand a meeting with Brown & Loot."
It sounds innocent enough, but the fact that these two have already come to an agreement can affect the way the announcement of need was expressed. To me this is an obvious non-no. It might not be actual "deliberating" but then again it could be construed that way.

Stan G's picture

On the other hand, one could

On the other hand, one could make the statement without referring to Joe, knowing that Joe will comment in support of it.

We can come up with many possible scenarios; the bottom line is the intent of the individuals to comply with the law.

It's called politics and as I was taught many years ago while attending college in Pennsylvania, if you want a bill passed you don't go to the legislative chambers, you go to the Caucus Room of the Hotel Harrisburger (as my aging mind recalls) after the daily session ends.

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