Counties urged to alter 'Sunshine Law'

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

CHAPEL HILL -- The president of Tennessee County Commissioners Association told a TCCA regional meeting Thursday at Henry Horton State Park that counties should push for changes in the Tennessee Open Meetings Act that would put local governments under the same rules as state government.

Bob Barnwell of Williamson County said that currently, state officials and local officials operate under different rules when it comes to open meetings. Any group of local officials discussing government business is prohibited, said Barnwell. Barnwell claimed that at the state level, if a quorum of the legislative body isn't present, there's no violation. Barnwell said local governments should insist that they be put under the same looser rules as state officials.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," said Barnwell, who reported that a model resolution is being prepared which counties could pass to support the idea.

Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government was consulted Friday morning when he said that most state agencies fall under the exact same rules as local governments under the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, also called the "Sunshine Law." It is only the General Assembly itself which operates under separate rules, said Gibson, and that's because the General Assembly is created by the state's constitution.

"The Sunshine Law applies to governing bodies that are created by legislative action," said Gibson.

Currently, said Gibson, members of a legislative body like a county commission or a state board or committee may only deliberate on public issues at announced meetings that are open to the public. If two county commissioners meet by chance at church or the grocery store, they can exchange pleasantries or talk about football, but if they begin to debate or discuss matters on which they'll have to vote, that's not allowed.

"It's the deliberations that are supposed to be open," said Gibson.

If Barnwell's proposal were to pass, small groups of county commissioners could discuss county business behind closed doors, so long as there wasn't a quorum present of any particular governing body. [Some Marshall County commissioners have gathered for dinner after monthly meetings at restaurants such as Mopey's on the Nashville Highway and LaFuente on East Church Street.]

Each fall, TCCA holds regional meetings at locations around the state to bring county commissioners up to speed on recent developments in state law that will have an impact on the counties.

Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett welcomed those in attendance and thanked them for their service to their constituents.

TCCA executive director David Connor chaired the meeting and briefed commissioners on state issues. He said that 2011 has been a year of dramatic changes for both state and local government in Tennessee.

Proposals like charter schools and vouchers are intended to give parents more flexibility in educating their children, but they can also have catastrophic impact on the traditional public schools which are left behind.

"Kids don't move in nice neat packages," said Connor.

A charter school is a publicly funded school which is requested by parents or teachers for some special purpose and which is operated separately from the normal school system. The charter school may have different policies or curriculum from the regular school system, and is subject to living up to its stated goals as laid out in its charter.

If too many children are pulled out of traditional schools in favor of charter schools, that could leave a traditional school without enough students to support its fixed operating costs. So Connor said charter school regulations have been tweaked to allow local school boards to take financial repercussions on the school system into account when deciding whether or not to grant a charter school request.

School vouchers are a program that allows parents to take some or all of the tax money that would otherwise be used to educate their children in the public school system and apply it instead towards the cost of private school.

The state senate passed a voucher bill in April, but the house deferred it for further study. As with charter schools, proponents say vouchers would give parents more choices but opponents say they have the potential to cripple the traditional public school system.

A third option possibly pulling students out of the public school system is the online "virtual school" being run on behalf of Union County by a for-profit company from Virginia, and recruiting thousands of students statewide. Connor said virtual schools have potential to benefit education but also the potential for abuse.

In order to prove to bond rating agencies that Tennessee deserves to keep its high rating at a time when the federal government's bond rating has been downgraded, Gov. Bill Haslam has directed state agencies to draw up a worst-case budget planning for a loss of up to 30 percent of the state's federal funding. Federal funds make up 40 percent of the state budget, Connor told county commissioners, almost half of that is for TennCare. Federal funds also drive food stamp and assistance programs, school lunch programs and play a significant part in transportation programs.

Drastic cuts in school lunch funding and in transportation funding would have the most direct impact on local governments, said Connor, although local economies could suffer as well if local residents are denied assistance.

Connor praised the announcement this week by the federal government that it is loosening rules that had required local governments to replace all road and highway signs with more-reflective, more-readable versions. Now, instead of having a deadline to replace existing signs, local governments will be able to phase in the new signs by installing them over time as part of the normal replacement process.

Bedford County commissioner and planning commission member Linda Yockey asked about halfway houses for those with mental disabilities. Yockey said such facilities are being built in residential subdivisions, "and nobody knows they're there until they see activity going on."

Connor said that legal precedents in some federal lawsuits prohibit homes for those with mental disabilities from being treated differently by zoning from normal homes or apartments.

He asked if any other counties present Thursday night had such situations, and commissioners from Hickman and Lewis counties both indicated they did. Connor told Yockey he would research the issue and get back to her.