Monthly Archives: October 2007

Plan to gut sunshine law not surprising

Here’s my column for Sunday’s paper.
Do public officials in Tennessee understand the purpose of the Open Meetings Act?
Shaken by Knox County’s recent lawsuit, the city and county associations now are frantic to change the law.
Last week their lobbyists– paid by taxpayers, of course — convinced a legislative study committee to amend the sunshine law to do away with the irksome “two or more” clause, which forbids private deliberations by any members of local legislative bodies. Instead, quorums would now be required. View the story here.
This, the government lobbyists argued, would “clarify” the act.
Clarify? What part of “NO BACKROOM DEALS” do they not understand?
After all, that’s the purpose the law — to force officials to carry out the public’s business in public so they don’t act in self-serving ways.
It was the secret and selfish wheeling and dealing that triggered outrage on Jan. 31, when the Knox County Commission appointed 12 top officials with no public discussion but plenty of “bathroom breaks” for last-minute deal-making.
Have lawmakers forgotten the reaction of the citizens? The News Sentinel ran a full page of comments, such as:
“Cronyism.” “It’s the ‘old boy’ network taking care of its own.” “I’m disgusted by the nepotism.” “What a sad little group of frauds.” “Cas Walker would be proud of the way the commission handled itself.”
So the solution is to make that kind of behavior LEGAL?
Under the change pushed by the lobbyists and accepted by the legislators on the Open Meetings Subcommittee, the “Black Wednesday” meeting would have been fine and dandy. After all, no quorum of the County Commission ever gathered to make sure the fix was in. One-on-one conversations, mostly by cell phone, served just fine, thank you.
So the public never heard a word of discussion about why commissioners decided to appoint relatives, a former drug dealer, a sexual harasser and a bevy of political insiders, who, not surprisingly, quickly hired or promoted many of the politicos in on the schemes.
That fact is, the members of the Municipal League and the County Services Association do understand the purpose of the sunshine law. They just don’t like it. They want to be able to operate in back rooms so they can wield their power untroubled by public scrutiny.
Maybe that was OK with the taxpayers once upon a time. But in this Internet age, with citizens empowered by vast information and instant ability to communicate and interact, I don’t think that’s the way the public wants its business conducted.
If you agree, you may want to exercise a little of that power and shoot an e-mail to members of the Open Government Study Committee. They include Sen. Randy McNally, Sen. Joe Haynes, Rep. Steve McDaniel and Rep. Ulysses Jones, Jr. McNally’s e-mail is and the others’ follow the same pattern.

Dealing with anonymous comments online

More and more people are commenting on the news through News Sentinel web sites. A few months ago, we changed to a new content management system that allows readers to post comments at the ends of stories, and the practice is catching on. Comments posted on and grew from 7,867 in August to 13,706 in September.
Philosophically I like the wild and woolly free-speech marketplace the comments create. So does Jack Lail, our online managing editor. But anonymity does create problems. Consider this note from the mother of the rape victim who went public last week:
“I would like to suggest that the people who post comments on an article be required to use their name — like the editorials that are submitted. These comments should be reviewed and the commentors should have to identify themselves. There are so many hurtful things being said about Kathleen in the comments. There are just plain untruths. … If people care enough to comment, let them write a letter to the editor. I ask this not only for Kathleen, but for all the people who have been hurt by untrue, uncaring comments.”
When it was explained to the mother that she could flag objectionable comments and they would be reviewed and, likely, removed, she felt somewhat better. Nonetheless, the issue continues to cause heartburn for editors who have, for decades, battled against abuse of anonymous sources.
We do require registration before comments can be posted. But there really is no way to verify identification on the Internet.
As an online columnist at one of our sister papers, in Redding, Calif., observed: “We can either drag our old media rules into this new arena and watch our audience go somewhere less stuffy, or we can embrace the messy democracy of it all.”

Who was real plaintiff in sunshine suit?

Burl E. Cloninger sent me the following letter regarding the recent sunshine lawsuit:
“I have followed the screwed up mess in the political appointments in Knox County for the last many weeks. Questions arise in my mind about the lawsuit. I have read and heard Editor Jack McElroy listed as the Plaintiff, along with others, in both the News Sentinel and on television. I have also read and heard that The News Sentinel is the Plaintiff. In McElroy’s column on October 7th, he states, “The newspaper’s recent court victory….” Just who is the real plaintiff? Is it McElroy or The News Sentinel? It seems that whomever the real plaintiff is, there has been a distinct decision made to change from a news publisher to a news maker. By becoming a news maker, the Sentinel has placed itself in the position of being able to benefit from the news it has created. Is this the function of a newspaper? Increase the coverage of a situation, increase circulation of the paper and raise advertising rates as the result.
“McElroy was questioned about this by the Defense, and Rick Hollow screamed out like a pinched baby. Rick is a big boy, so he should not have opened the door by asking McElroy about his exploits in reporting on the Columbine shooting.
“Maybe McElroy could answer the following questions in his Sunday column next week. 1) Just who is the Plaintiff – McElroy or the News Sentinel? 2) Is McElroy just a “straw man” for the newspaper? 3) This can best be answered by telling us who is paying Hollow. Is McElroy paying Hollow out of his personal funds or is the News Sentinel paying? 4) How many column inches has been printed on this situation? 5) Since McElroy views sunshine so critically important, why not tell us how much has been paid to Hollow for his services and expenses and how much is owed?”
I haven’t decided yet whether to address those questions in print, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to answer them here. First, only a citizen can bring suit under the Open Meetings Act. As editor, I was the appropriate representative of the newspaper to fill that role. But clearly the suit was brought by the News Sentinel. I recommended the suit to publisher Bruce Hartmann who made the final decision after conferring with myself, other editors, our attorney and corporate representatives. I don’t think that constitutes acting as a “straw man.” The paper has never made any bones about its role, and I don’t think anyone ever thought I had undertaken the suit as an individual.
The newspaper has dedicated thousands of column inches to coverage of the case and other issues involving county government this year. I have no idea what the total is. However, there is no evidence it has resulted in any significant increase in circulation. The only noticeable circulation bump occurred immediately after the Jan. 31 meeting, when a few hundred extra copies were sold. Overall, our paid circulation has been down moderately this year, but our online audience has been up significantly. Between the two, our aggregated audience is up over previous years.
I don’t yet know how much the newspaper’s legal expenses will be. The bills are still arriving. Certainly we’re hoping there will not be an appeal, but we are prepared to continue to press the case vigorously if there is. Right now I’d estimate the cost could easily top $100,000 regardless.
As to the fundamental question of whether it’s a newspaper’s role to file such as suit, my answer is an unequivocal yes. Newspapers have long taken the lead in fighting for open government. Over my 30-year career, the newspapers I’ve worked at have made scores, if not hundreds, of access complaints, with maybe 10 or so leading to actual litigation. The News Sentinel is a founding member of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, and each year we happily pay a $5,000 assessment to support the organization. We also are members of the Tennessee Press Association, which has long lobbied for open-government legislation. Rich Hollow and the News Sentinel were key players in the drafting of the sunshnie law decades ago.
I’m not comfortable making news. But if the News Sentinel is going to make news, I sure can’t think of a better way to do it.

Sunshine law’s “two or more” standard is reasonable

I expanded my earlier posting into a column for Sunday’s paper. Here is it:
Is the sunshine law unreasonable? Over the past several weeks, as our trial against the County Commission unfolded, I was asked that several times, often by people supportive of the News Sentinel.
Typically they were concerned about the law’s restriction against “two or more