Gerber: So much for sunshine

Gerber: So much for sunshine

March 23rd, 2014 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Last week was Sunshine Week, the seven days when media organizations across the country highlight the vital importance of governmental transparency and openness in democracy.

Ironically, here in Chattanooga last week, one of our elected officials was doing his very best to limit openness.

On Tuesday, after a Chattanooga City Council agenda session, Councilman Chip Henderson told Times Free Press reporter Joy Lukachick that he was about to attend a meeting to get an update on improvements to the Hixson Recreation Center. He told Lukachick she was welcome to attend.

Henderson sat at a table in the council break room with two other council members, Ken Smith and Jerry Mitchell. A staff member briefed them on improvements planned for the rec center -- a new track, expanded parking lot and so on. Not exactly juicy stuff.

While Lukachick was there, a council secretary told her she wasn't supposed to be in the break room; Henderson replied that he'd invited her. A few minutes after the secretary left, Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem entered the break room, told Lukachick it was inappropriate for her to be there and ordered her to leave. She did.

Here's the problem: Tennessee has an open meetings law, often called the "Sunshine Law," designed to give the public access to meetings between elected officials, regardless of where they meet.

The state's Sunshine Law says:

• Citizens can attend public meetings and observe their elected officials doing the public's business.

• A meeting is open to the public when it consists of two or more members of a governing body with the power to deliberate toward a decision.

• The law also applies to groups making recommendations to a governing body.

Hakeem said he asked Lukachick to leave after another council member told him a reporter was in the kitchen area.

"That is the only area that is 'our space,'" he said. "A couple of council people had problems that a reporter -- not a council person or staff [member] -- was back there."

Hakeem said he didn't know what the three council members in the break room were discussing. But he also said they were not deliberating. How he knew they weren't deliberating when he didn't know what they were discussing is unclear.

The council will vote on plans for the rec center in upcoming weeks, Lee Norris, the city's public works administrator, told Lukachick. It's hard to imagine that the discussion from the break room will not inform the council members' votes. It's hard to see how this meeting was not part of the deliberative process. Yet Hakeem kicked the reporter out.

If the break room is off limits to the public, there a simple solution: Do not hold meetings that, by law, are open to the public in the break room.

Hakeem said the meeting was intended to be held in a conference room, but it was in use. Which pretty much cements the fact that this was a meeting the public had every right to attend. The location of the meeting isn't a fair reason to bar the public.

This incident follows another not-so-friendly welcome Lukachick got from Hakeem at a different public meeting.

On Monday, she attended a meeting between CARTA and four Chattanooga City Council members. The meeting fell under the state's open-meeting laws and a public notice had been issued to give its time and place. That didn't stop Hakeem, the moment he saw Lukachick, from immediately turning to CARTA officials and asking if they were comfortable with the media there. They answered that it's a public meeting. Lukachick stayed.

But he should never have questioned her presence. She has a right to be there by law.

The message behind Sunshine Week is that open government is good government. In this city, terms like "Open Chattanooga" and "transparency" are bandied about in an effort to look progressive. If the city's elected officials close doors to members of the public -- reporters, residents, activists, anyone -- statements about "transparency" fall flat.

Even worse, citizens won't be able to keep politicians accountable to the people who elected them.

Openness isn't up to one man's whim. It's a right.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aligerb.