EDITOR’S NOTE: The following editorial was published in The Leaf-Chronicle of Clarksville on March 10, the beginning of Sunshine Week. It is as relevant today as it was then since the legislative effort to weaken the Sunshine Law is scheduled to be before the House State Government subcommittee on Tuesday, March 26.
Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an observance introduced in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to remind Americans of how precious a gift we have in open government, and why we all must demand it remain so.
Sunshine Week is observed annually in March to coincide with the March 16 birthday of President James Madison, the father of the First Amendment. But the application of the concept of sunlight, as in shining light on government action, is traced to a quote in 1912 by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who told a magazine: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
The week presents an opportunity to compare government’s actions concerning its transparency with what is actually happening. Most years it easy to find a current case of government threatening to close the curtain on its business, limit the sunlight and reduce access.
This week, right on schedule, we learned of a renewed push is under way to get Tennessee lawmakers to allow local officials to hold more closed-door meetings. Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who led a similar attempt last year, has written to local government colleagues around the state urging them to encourage state lawmakers to pass a bill to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn’t present.
Plainly stated, Barnwell’s proposal would allow secret meetings among 10 Montgomery County commissioners or six Clarksville City Council members who could strike deals out of the public eye.
Current law wisely forbids members of a local legislative body from meeting privately to deliberate on public business. It does not ban officials from speaking to each other during chance encounters or from having other conversations.
To their credit, last year Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the speakers of the House and Senate expressed reservations about the effort to change the law, and the bill was withdrawn early in the session. The bill should be greeted with the same treatment again this year.
We urge members of the Montgomery County Commission and the Clarksville City Council to give no support to this misguided attempt to reduce government transparency. Beyond that, both bodies are encouraged to do as county commissions in Knox, Anderson, Sullivan and other counties did last year and approve resolutions rejecting the bill.
The open meetings law states, “The general assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.” Notice must be given of the meeting, and all votes must be in public.
That been a good standard in Tennessee for four decades, and it should continue. Moreover, citizens must be vigilant in support of the Sunshine Law. The government’s business will be conducted in the open only for as long as people and the press continue to demand transparency and accountability.