We Do Not Need A Solar Eclipse In Our Government

6 12 2007

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If you read this blog with any sense of frequency, all 12 of you, I think you probably all know that I’m a big fan on strengthening the sunshine law for citizens, not weakening it. If you’ve noticed over the past few weeks, some of us who blog who also work for “The Man” in media outlets, big and small, have been hammering this. We have done it for weeks. And I’m pleased to see some folks here in the great state of Tennessee who aren’t in media picking up on the cause. Joe Lance from Tennessee Ticket even included a list of bloggers in his latest column in the Chattanooga Pulse that included Bill Hobbs, Joe Powell, Smart City Memphis, R. Neal, Russ McBee, Jack Lail and myself.

It’s amazing to see even though some of us are politically divided that we agree on this. It’s not a political issue in a liberal or conservative kind of way, but more so it’s about the business of politics.

About three weeks ago, I drafted a letter about the importance of open meetings that I was going to send to all my blogging buddies as well as some folks not in Tennessee’s online community. In it, I was, in my eyes at least, sincere and presented a bunch of reasons why this law was important.

I trashed it.

I’ll tell you why. Because I’m thinking, and Michael Silence and I touched on this off-line not too long ago when I asked him the question of why the majority of folks weren’t paying attention although some bloggers were. He said something on the lines of that people don’t realize its importance until it affects them. So, I have gone locally to talk to people about this. The response hasn’t been overwhelming, to be quite honest, but then again I started to realize, once again, that the Average Joes in the world don’t really understand the law.

Yeah, that’s about right.

About two years ago, and I may have written about this before but it’s on my mind, a man I knew for the sheer fact that I’d put him on the front page with all mugshot goodness and was angry with me for awhile after a stint in jail called me. (I tell you the history to set up the fact that he had some issues, needless to say.) Anyway, he had gone to get a copy of his affidavit of complaint and his records from Circuit Court. They wouldn’t let him have it. He asked for my help. He just wanted to see what the officers had written. I ended up calling and got them within 15 minutes.

Why am I telling you this?

Because that wasn’t cool. People have a right to their records. It shouldn’t be me or anybody in newspapers taking precedent over an average citizen, despite the fact that he had a history with the police, the records were his.

Story number two: Yeah, I’ve been kicked to the curb a time or two from a public meeting. One time was due to that a local elected official got into some money trouble (and ultimately had felony fraud charges filed against him.) Tossed to the curb, I’m telling you. The man was furious and his buddies, (who ultimately sort of abandoned him when they got all the details and a conviction happened) were not wanting the local media to hear what they had to say about this. We were wondering if any public money was involved in the case which I defend to this day although it happened about 14 years ago. I’ll be honest, none of us really thought it was that big of a story until we got tossed. Then we sort of figured it out by their actions more than anything else.

Story number three: The schools consolidated in this county and things got rough. People tend to react strongly over Religion, Taxes and their Children, believe me. I found out, quite by accident, that some elected folks were going to meet about whether or not to consolidate the schools. Know how I found out, it was lying on one of the elected officials desk and he tossed it in a trashcan while I was standing there. He had someone that needed to talk to him for a moment and, I never touched the post-it note he had tossed, but in his trying to act casual he didn’t throw it away very well and the words were written where I could see them. It was for a meeting that night. When he returned to the office, I asked him what he was doing that night and he said “Nothing, just going out with friends for dinner.” I didn’t mention it again and we probably just BS’d for a little while and I went on about my day.

However …

I showed up and there were seven or eight elected officials sitting in a large room. I had called the other media outlets to go as a unified force (this story dominated west Tennessee news for months. It was a big deal and I was in radio then so I knew I’d have the first scoop on it anyway.) The guy who was just “going out with friends” was sitting there with all of the local folks. When we walked in, a bunch of faces looked at us with surprise and anger.

One guy said, “We need to meet about this where we can talk about it.” We weren’t asked to leave, but there were a lot of irked people there. It was a deliberate attempt to get some resolution on a story that the public was passionate about. I learned later from one of the guys with a guilty conscience that they had called the meeting so they could make a decision, present it to the commission and do a quick vote. The vote would have closed four high schools in small towns where that was all they had. Their schools were their identities. (And on a personal note, I’ll be honest, I was actually for consolidating the high schools, but my opinion didn’t matter. It was about some very upset people’s opinions.) It was about the public’s right to know.

For some of you, I realize you might be thinking that maybe elected folks do need time to sort things out. Maybe you are thinking that this causes a problem for elected people to get their job done. I get that. That there is a feeling that we should make government more “efficient.”

But here’s the thing, it’s about the public’s right to be involved with the process if they so choose to be. It’s about people like S-Town Mike, Left Wing Cracker the dozens of bloggers at TennViews or Russ McBee that aren’t paid by “the man” in media, folks who don’t blog, who just want to know what’s going on, having the opportunity to be involved IF THEY WANT TO BE!

It’s funny to me that I hear elected officials say all the time that they want citizens to be involved and then do everything in their power to set up roadblocks where it’s jumping through hoops to be a part of it the process of policy making.

Government, on either side of the table, is never convenient. I’ve said this before, most meetings I go to are a snooze fest as Katherine said yesterday over at MCB and will put you to sleep faster than taking two Ambiens and a gin and tonic. But the public is the boss although we are constantly given many reasons to believe we aren’t.

If you are a blogger who isn’t in media, just think of the day that you feel strongly about an issue. Think about how you would feel if your elected person met about that issue without your knowledge. Imagine how you would feel if an elected official utilized this law to keep you from being part of the process.

So, I ask for all of you to spread the word. I’m not going to send an email about this because I need to be transparent about this as well and keep this cause that I feel very strongly about in the “sun.” Agree, Disagree, it doesn’t matter. Keep talking about it because it’s an important subject that, ultimately, could effect each and every one of us. I’m planning on keeping a log of what I see and showing my Tennessee elected officials. They need to see what the average citizen thinks about their roles in creating policy that encompasses the masses.

And, if you are inclined, you can do that same thing. It may or may not make a difference, but then again, it might get the attention of a few folks and it might educate some people as well.

Photo from Nasa.

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12 responses

6 12 2007
Nashville is Talking » Shedding Some Light

[…] Newscoma masters the answers when it comes to the state’s sunshine laws. It’s funny to me that I hear elected officials say all the time that they want citizens to be involved and then do everything in their power to set up roadblocks where it’s jumping through hoops to be a part of it the process of policy making. […]

6 12 2007
John Carney

Our T-G blogs don’t do trackback, but I’ve just linked to you from my blog at the Times-Gazette web site.

6 12 2007
newscoma

Thanks, I’m going to work on a page over the weekend to track all the posts about the law then show it to my politicians on what real people are saying! I think they sometimes forget about “real live” people.

6 12 2007
Russ

‘Coma, thank you for this. You said it very well, and I intend to pass this around. I’ll post about it later today.

6 12 2007
newscoma

Thanks Russ. You have done a great job of promoting this.

🙂

6 12 2007
Volunteer Voters » Dancing With The Devil In The Harsh Sunshine

[…] has penned yet another expansive screed on the importance of open government and in it tells an interesting story: Leave a […]

6 12 2007
blindersoff

First of all I like you new look

I am one of those average Joe citizens who have to get someone in the media to get the public information I want. I hope you all stay on top of this.

There was a time average citizens did not have to fill out a form to speak at a public hearing, but that change at this month’s meeting in my city. The excuse was flimsy as to why average Joe citizen had to write their personal information on a form to speak at a public hearing. IMO, it is our elected officials’ way of intimidating average Joe citizen to speak against an issue on the agenda.

If you or anyone of your readers have the answer please share…

1. Is it legal to request written personal information before speaking at a public hearing?

6 12 2007
Lisa Starbuck

Above is a recent blog post about the proposed changes to the sunshine law. A group of concerned Knox County citizens met with Tim Burchett and Bill Dunn about this – Burchett and Dunn agreed to sponsor an alternative bill implementing some clarification language to the law – not changes to make it weaker. See http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2007/nov/13/burchett-bill-would-add-teeth-sunshine/
I am going to follow up with them to check on the status, but the idea was basically to implement some modest clarifications to the law suggested by Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (www.tcog.info). Another good link for your list might be the State Sunshine and Open Records blog at http://openrecords.wordpress.com/

Another post on how the sunshine law is impacting local government (besides all the commentary on the Knox County Commission appointments and the resulting sunshine lawsuit filed by the News-Sentinel) is located at http://www.knoxviews.com/node/6445. It’s a thread about the sunshine lawsuit filed by the residents of Thorngrove against Knox County Commission, Knox MPC and The Development Corp alleging sunshine law violations in their deliberations to put an industrial park on 380 acres at Midway Road against the wishes of the community. If the recommendations by the committee become law, deliberations such as these where they are purchasing property, would become legally secret and not subject to the law.

7 12 2007
newscoma

Lisa, thanks for the comment. You got caught up in Askimet and I fished it out.
You are right on about this. One thing I’m asking is would easements also be kept secret, especially for people who don’t want to give up their land. There are a million things that could happen if they weaken the law, and not every one is taking that into consideration.

9 12 2007
TennViews Weekly Round-Up « Newscoma

[…] • NewsComa: No solar eclipse in government […]

22 12 2007
Don Jones

“The Great Light = Open Meetings ! I find it incredible that we are even discussing the possibility of doing away with the Sunshine Law.

22 12 2007
newscoma

We are working on it, Don.
Just keep spreading the word with your friends.

WE ARE FIGHTING!

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