Commission seeks screen to 'Sunshine Law'

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 Citing burdens and restrictions, county commissioners are advocating for an amendment to the state Sunshine Law, to allow greater private interaction between local policy makers.

“I think the law is too burdensome,” Commissioner Bob Walden said Friday. “I think the law is too restrictive for two people to have a conversation.”

The Sunshine Law—also known as the Open Meetings Act—was passed in 1976 to ensure public agencies operate in transparency and do not conduct business in private.  

It requires elected officials who serve on municipal boards or councils, such as the county commission, to publicly advertise anytime two or more of them meet.

Earlier this month, the commission passed a resolution to petition the Tennessee General Assembly to change the Sunshine Law. 

It received 14 yes votes. Commissioner Bob Walden was absent. 

By passing the resolution, the Campbell County Commission joins other county governments across Tennessee to seek an amendment to the Sunshine Law that would hold county officials to the same — less restrictive — standards as state officials.

“I think any organization wanting to go behind closed doors rather than being transparent becomes suspect in my mind,” county resident Larry Tanis said. “I’m a firm believer in structure. I am opposed to ‘behind closed doors.’”

Despite an apparent lack of support from the public, commissioners say they understand and intend to abide by the law, but require more flexibility — especially in small, close-knit municipalities where public and private lives often collide. 

“It’s not good to have closed door meetings. I wouldn’t want enough people to get together and make decisions without the public getting involved…[But] it can be construed as a violation of the Sunshine Law if you go to Walmart and run into a fellow commissioner,” Orick said. “I agree, four or five or six commissioners should not get together and have a meeting, but it’s a shame you cannot walk into a restaurant and say ‘Hey commissioner, how you doing? Can I buy you dinner?’ without someone saying ‘open meetings violation.’”

Commissioners Bobby White and Walden also believe the law is an obstacle to social interaction with other commissioners.

“If me and Steve Rutherford are at a principal’s meeting — we’re both principals. But we’re both commissioners,” said Walden. “We can’t even discuss issues without violating the Sunshine Law.”

Walden said he was friends with several of the other commissioners before he was elected.

“Now I feel like I can’t even talk to them unless it’s in an open meeting,” Walden said “Regardless of the issue.”

At the March 18 commission meeting, White added the resolution to the meeting’s agenda and made the motion to approve it.

“I have some good friends that are commissioners,” he said. “We can’t go out to eat.”

If a person who sees two or more commissioners together outside a public meeting accuses them of violating the open meetings act, the commissioners must prove they aren’t in violation of the Sunshine Law, White said.

“There’s nothing fair about that,” White said.

Part of the rationale for the resolution challenging the Sunshine Law is county officials aren’t currently held to the same standard as state officials, who must advertise gatherings as a public meeting only if a majority is present.

“It’s like ‘Do as I say, not as I do,” Orick said. “I think if somebody’s gonna govern me, they should abide by the same rules.”

State vs. local

But it isn’t possible to apply the same restrictions to the state legislature, according to State Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro. 

In a 2001 lawsuit, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled state lawmakers aren’t subject to the same limitations as local governments under the Sunshine Law. 

The ruling aims to prevent current legislators from passing laws that would put restrictions on incoming lawmakers. 

If the Sunshine Law is changed to loosen restrictions on local officials, less than a majority of the county commission could gather without advertising the assembly as a public meeting. Those who meet would be able to discuss county business, White said.

“If I discuss an issue with another commissioner, there’s nothing wrong with that,” White said. “Because you need to be an informed commissioner when you go there (to the meetings).”

If the law is amended, it would still limit lawmakers from crafting policy outside public meetings. 

“The only time you can make policy is at an open meeting where you can take a vote,” White said. “And a majority is required for that.”

Even though the Campbell County Commission, along with other county governments, passed resolutions requesting a change, it still requires legislation from the General Assembly to change the Sunshine Law, Powers said. 

And that’s unlikely. 

Such legislation would require a state legislator to sponsor a bill to amend the Sunshine Law and the General Assembly isn’t considering any such legislation. 

The state legislature would have to see a lot of support from across the state before considering such a change.

A similar push by county commissioners to amend the Sunshine Law failed in 2006, Orick said. 

“It didn’t go nowhere,” he said. “It’s not going to go nowhere this time.”