published Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

Hamilton County Commission, schools plan 'informal' meetings

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, center, works with other commissioners in this file photo.
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, center, works with other commissioners in this file photo.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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Hamilton County school board members this week embraced a suggestion by County Commission Chairman Larry Henry for "informal" meetings between the two groups, meetings small enough that they won't be "hampered and hamstrung" by the state Sunshine Law, he said.

The law mandates public transparency in the public's business. It states that two or more members of an elected body may not meet privately and deliberate toward a decision on a public issue.

Henry suggested the get-togethers at a commission meeting this week. The idea, he said, is to allow commissioners and school board members to work with others besides their district counterparts in hopes of improving the overall relationship between the bodies.

Because the meetings would involve only one voting member from each government body, they would not fall under the restrictions of the Sunshine Law and would allow the meetings to be more "informal," he said.

"Each member could go back to their meetings and report on the discussions," Henry explained.

Board of Education Chairman Mike Evatt announced the plan at Thursday's board meeting. He said school board members and commissioners will be assigned on a rotation to monthly meetings that will include County Mayor Jim Coppinger and schools Superintendent Chairman Rick Smith.

He hopes the meetings will be for "planning, what our goals are right now and what are we up to right now?"

Evatt said he expects the group to talk a lot about when and where to build new schools and maintain existing ones, and how to pay for it all.

"We see where the growth is. It's in the eastern part of the county. We've got to be ahead of that growth with some new schools. We have schools with leaky roofs, schools that need to go away," he said.

Evatt referenced the agreement that the board and commission recently worked out after months of bickering over plans for a new East Brainerd Elementary School.

"We were sitting on an East Brainerd architect that we had proposed four months ago and there was a big squabble about what was going to be done with money from the sale of the old property," he said. "We just need to move Hamilton County forward."

He denied the informal meetings would amount to doing the public's business in private.

"These are not decision-making meetings," he said. "The purpose of these meetings is mainly developing relationships, ideas."

Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, said such meetings would not violate the letter of the open meetings law.

"The problem when you have small group meetings like this is the public has to be able to trust that they're not going to be talking a particular issue, which would be deliberation," Gibson said.

"The question is, why these sessions can't be in the open?"

He said he's known most of the commissioners for many years, "but that doesn't mean we always see eye to eye."

Coppinger on Friday called the meetings "a great opportunity to be able on a monthly basis to sit down with a commissioner and school board member to talk about where we are and where we're going."

He pointed out that more than half the county budget goes to fund education, not counting bond issues for school construction and maintenance.

"Anytime you're making that kind of financial commitment, you should be communicating on a regular basis," Coppinger said.

Fourth District Commissioner Warren Mackey, chairman of the Education Committee, and his school board counterpart, George Ricks, also embraced the idea of the meetings.

"We ask taxpayers for money for programs. They expect us to ensure that money is spent properly," Mackey said. "Like the schools grade their students, it seems to me there should be some accountability on their part."

As far as private meetings, "we're going to abide by spirit of the Sunshine Law; we're not going to come to any agreements behind closed doors," he said.

"I want to go look my constituents in the face and say, 'I believe in what they're doing,' but how can I do that if I don't know what their goals are, what they're trying to accomplish?"

Ricks said he'd prefer the two bodies meet as a group, but he, too, downplayed concerns about doing business out of the public eye.

"We know the rules; we know to follow the rules," he said. "It's important we all get together as a team and discuss our vision for the schools and their vision."

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