Gerber: Forecast - Too little sunshine

Gerber: Forecast - Too little sunshine

February 26th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Reporters get accustomed to public officials being tight-lipped about certain subjects, not wanting to give out details until they can come up with the best spin.

It's something a good reporter learns to deal with and still get the story.

But it's a totally different situation when a public official shuts a door in your face.

That's what happened to Times Free Press education reporter Kevin Hardy and other local journalists on Feb. 16 when they were excluded from a Hamilton County Board of Education work session that included seven of nine school board members, school Superintendent Rick Smith, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and local education officials.

The exclusion violates Tennessee's Open Meetings law, also known as the Sunshine Law, which exists so taxpayers can get into public meetings to see what their government is doing with their money.

The meeting was held to discuss a grant that Hamilton County appears likely to apply for. Four school districts are eligible to apply for a $30 million to $40 million pot of money to turn around low-performing schools.

That's right: $30 million to $40 million. In taxpayers' money.

The larger issue isn't that the media were shut out. It's that, by excluding the media, the public was shut out, too. And that's a scary thought when you're talking about under-performing local schools and the possibility of enacting dramatic transformation with the use of millions of public dollars.

Under the law, a meeting is open when it consists of two or more members of a governing body empowered to deliberate toward a decision. All meetings of governing bodies are presumed open. When officials do close a meeting to the media and public, they must cite the legal exemption that allows them to do so.

When asked on Feb. 16, state officials couldn't.

At first, Huffman's spokeswoman, Kelli Gauthier, a former Times Free Press reporter, said the meeting was closed to the media because they were talking about a competitive grant, which isn't an acceptable exemption.

After the meeting, Gauthier said they just decided to reschedule the board's executive session - which can be closed to the public - moving it from that night to that afternoon.

That also doesn't hold up since the board had no executive session planned that night, according to the agenda. And even if it did, discussion of a grant still isn't an acceptable reason for an executive session.

The dispute on who closed the meeting and why descended quickly into rounds of finger-pointing, with Smith saying Huffman asked for the meeting to be closed and Huffman's staff saying it was a decision made by local officials.

As state education commissioner, Huffman can legally meet with teachers, principals or superintendents behind closed doors as often as he wants. But it's a scary precedent to shut down the meeting of an elected school board which is obligated to observe the Sunshine Law.

The Hamilton County Board of Education is generally vigilant about following the open meetings law and does a good job of ensuring the public is notified of meetings.

It appears that there was some direct or indirect pressure put on local officials to keep reporters away from the state commissioner. If that happened, it's unfair that the state's highest-ranking education official would put the local superintendent and school board in a position to potentially break the law.

Huffman's boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has said he supports open government and transparency. On several occasions in the past few months, Haslam has said he opposes efforts to weaken the Sunshine Law.

Let's hope his education commissioner adopts a similar viewpoint.

Whether Huffman or Smith explicitly asked that the meeting be closed to the press doesn't matter much. Either way, it's unacceptable.

Their behavior sends the message that secret meetings are OK. They're not.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfreepress.com.