Editorial Round-Up: Open Meetings and Public Records

Newspapers in Tennessee and New York urged policymakers to provide open access to the public.

Change the Tennessee open meeting law? That's what the Board of Directors for the Tennessee County Commissioners Association has suggested, urging lawmakers to adopt a new policy that would allow local government officials to meet in private so long as no quorum is present. Editorials throughout the state have responded with a resounding no to that proposal, saying that the state's transparency laws function just fine.

The Commercial Appeal in Memphis declared on Dec. 12 that the association's proposal "would essentially gut the nearly 40-year-old statute." The editorial credited Gov. Bill Haslam (a former Knoxville mayor) with opposing the change to the law, and acknowledged that state lawmakers, who will make the final decision, can set their own procedural rules to conduct some meetings behind closed doors.

"Nothing in the amendment would prevent a few influential members of a local legislative body, for example, from getting together privately to negotiate a property tax rate they could all agree on without being required to justify their positions to voters," the Commercial Appeal
warned. "The public should be extremely wary."

The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun also commended Haslam's opposition to any proposed changes to the statute, saying that his leadership "will help ensure that public trust in local government isn't undermined, and it sends a message to lawmakers to keep their constituents' best interests ahead of political gamesmanship." The newspaper acknowledged the perspective of public officials who would support such a change, which would allow them to more conveniently discuss public matters as they try to juggle their work and public service, but then succinctly explained the problem with that position.

"The problem with these arguments is that they put the interests of elected officials before the interests of constituents. The requirement that all public business be done in the open is the first line of defense for trust in local government," the Sun argued in its Dec. 11 editorial. "Even constituents who never attend a public meeting can take comfort knowing that their business is being conducted openly, and officials always will be on the record and accountable for what they say."

"Don’t mess with the Sunshine Law. It works well the way it is," the Paris (Tenn.) Post-Intelligencer wrote on Dec. 9, paraphrasing Haslam. The newspaper noted that the groups advocating for a change might be slightly misinterpreting the current law: Tennessee's Sunshine law doesn't prohibit officials from discussing public issues in private, but it does restrict them from "deliberating toward a decision," according to the Post-Intelligencer.

"Obviously it would be more convenient not to have to toe the line, but public trust is a hugely valuable asset to an elected governing body," the newspaper stressed. "The Sunshine Law is a vital tool for building the trust that citizens in a good government have in those they elected."

New York officials are also on the precipice of revising transparency policies. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a bill that would require government bodies to make relevant public records available to the public before and after the government entities met to discuss an issue, according to the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo hasn't signed it into law. The Journal, along with several other newspapers in the state, encouraged the governor to do so.

The Journal wrote on Dec. 9 that the current state policy is "easily fixable." Concerns about the costs of providing such documents should be offset by the drop in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the newspaper argued.

"This should be a rudimentary expectation, not a hardship on government by any means," the Journal asserted. "Too often, the public tries to participate in government but simply can’t follow along at meetings because relevant details or documents were not posted or released ahead of time."

On Dec. 11, the Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Press-Republican also "strongly encourage[d]" Cuomo to put his signature on the the bill. The newspaper shared the Journal's opinion that the policy could  reduce the number of FOIA requests. It also commended a local school board, which has already provided documents for public consumption ahead of meetings, without any statewide statute in place.

Last week, the Catskill (N.Y.) Daily Mail and the Utica (N.Y.) Observer Dispatch reached the same conclusion. "Government operates best when there is a partnership between the people and the leaders they choose to represent them.," the Observer Dispatch stated.

Dylan Scott is a GOVERNING staff writer.