Monthly Archives: September 2007

Is sunshine law unreasonable?

First, apologies for being absent. The sunshine trial has been consuming a lot of time.
As the case has developed, a number of people have asked me about the sunshine law — specifically, don’t I think it’s unreasonable to expect local lawmakers to never talk to each other about public business outside of a public meeting.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about the law, and I’ve become more and more fascinated by some of its built-in subtleties.
First, the law is enforced only by citizens willing to sue to enforce it. Given the tremendous cost of litigation, that’s not a decision made lightly. A relatively harmless and isolated “deliberation” in private by two local lawmakers is unlikely to trigger a lawsuit. Only egregious violations are worth tackling, and, in fact, there has been little, if any, frivilous litigation surrounding the law since its inception.
Also, if there is a violation, it is “cured” if followed by a true and open debate of the issue in public. No harm; no foul.
For these two reasons, the sunshine law is self-limiting. True, minor infractions are forbidden. But as a practical matter, minor violations are given a pass.
To trigger enforcement and possible sanctions, local lawmakers really have to defy the spirit of the law deliberately.
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government maintains a list of complaints of sunshine law violations. It’s interesting to note that almost none of them have resulted in lawsuits.
The fact of the matter is, when it comes to sunshine law violations, local lawmakers trying to do the right thing have nothing to worry about. The minor violations — and most of the major ones — never go to court. It takes something like the Jan. 31 meeting of the County Commission to trigger enforcement.
There’s no way the law is too tough, and public officials making that argument either don’t understand how it really operates or simply believe they should be able to do more of the public’s business in secret.
If anything, the sunshine law needs more teeth. It shouldn’t take a plaintiff with tens of thousands of dollars to burn to assure that the public can monitor — and understand — the actions of its government.

How we’ll cover Sunshine suit

Here’s a column I’ve written for Sunday’s paper on our plans to cover the Sunshine suit starting next week:
We journalists are supposed to keep ourselves out of the story. We’re trained to be neutral observers, reporting what we see with aloof objectivity.
But what do we do when the story is about us? How do we cover that news while maintaining credibility?
That’s a dilemma the News Sentinel has faced since February when we filed suit against the Knox County Commission, accusing it of violating the Open Meetings Act.
I believed then and believe as strongly now that the lawsuit was an appropriate — indeed, necessary — extension of our watchdog role.
However, it has opened us to accusations of biased coverage. After all, we are a party to the lawsuit on which we are reporting.
That dilemma will become more problematic this week as the suit goes to trial. So I thought I’d take a moment to outline our coverage plans.
Jamie Satterfield, our regular courts reporter, will be the lead writer. Readers familiar with Jamie’s work know of her vigorous, no-holds-barred style. She translates legalese into common speech, which annoys some people, particularly attorneys involved in the cases she covers. But it also makes her copy highly readable.
In any event, she is an experienced and skilled journalist with a reputation for integrity. She also has had no direct involvement in our coverage of county government, and she happens to be a resident of Sevier County, not Knox.
To provide independent scrutiny of our coverage, however, we also put out a request among local bloggers for volunteers to monitor our reports. Three bloggers stepped forward. Happily, they span the political spectrum.
Dave Oatney is fairly conservative. Rich Hailey is basically libertarian. Russ McBee is pretty liberal.
You will be able to find links to all of them — and other bloggers commenting on the trial — through our own Michael Silence’s blog.
On occasion, we may also publish excerpts from these blogs in the print edition.
Here’s what McBee posted in accepting the challenge to cover our coverage:
“This outreach to local bloggers seems to me to be based on two ideas: first, it appears that McElroy wants to ensure that his paper covers the trial objectively by enlisting ‘civilian’ outsiders as watchdogs. Second, it seems like an effort by McElroy to integrate the print edition of the paper with the local blogging community. … I fully support both of those ideas, which is why I volunteered to participate in watching the coverage and providing feedback.
“Stay tuned. This will be interesting.