School project choice deserves open hearing

School project choice deserves open hearing

March 14th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger comments on a portion of his budget to county commissioners in this file photo.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger comments on a...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

What's the worst thing that could happen if Hamilton County commissioners discuss new school projects outside the public view, as suggested in Wednesday's agenda session?

After all, it's just Mayor Jim Coppinger meeting individually with nine guys to determine the timing of construction of $136 million worth of facilities that might be used by some of the 41,000-plus students in the county system.

Schools, quite naturally, would be the only thing on the agenda at each of those meetings. Neither the mayor nor any county commissioner would bring up another subject that might in any way interfere with the discussion on schools. Any horse-trading on projects, of course, would be out of the question.

And, of course, commission Chairman Fred Skillern is right. An open meeting would just foment lots of discussion. The public -- and we all know how members of the public are with their opinions and such -- might want to have a say. It would take forever, and people have work to do.

"I didn't want to sit there all day," Skillern told Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon on Wednesday. "We'd still be there, and there wouldn't be nothing settled."

Well, maybe, there's just one other thing to consider. If the meetings don't violate the letter or spirit of the Tennessee Sunshine Law, as Elisha D. Hodge of the Tennessee Office of Open Records indicates they don't, they certainly don't let much light in, either.

The law stipulates as long as there is no deliberation on the part of Coppinger and any county commissioner -- as long as they don't have the back-and-forth discussion or questioning one is likely to see in a governing body -- they are in the clear. As long as the county mayor pops his head in the door of each commissioner and informationally gives his list of schools, they're OK.

What's at stake are the next three school projects to be built out of a list of six presented -- with previous input from the Hamilton County School Board -- by Superintendent Rick Smith. The amount of money available for the projects, according to Coppinger, is likely to cover only three of the projects.

The county mayor said at Wednesday's commission agenda session he was prepared to reveal the projects he supported, but he backtracked after Skillern suggested he meet with commissioners privately. He said later the only reason he remained mum was because he was asked to.

Will Coppinger's "big three" be the same three after he talks to commissioners? We'll never know because we won't know if there was any actual deliberation.

Will he convince commissioners to change their mind about supporting a specific project -- which would violate the Sunshine Law -- when he talks to them individually? There's no way of knowing.

Behind closed doors, with no one to verify the conversation, perhaps a vote for a school project could be traded for support on an upcoming development. Perhaps future commission chairmanship support could be swapped for a school project vote. Perhaps support in an upcoming commission race could be bantered for a vote on a school project.

The mind boggles at what kind of deals might be made. Or there may be nothing untoward. But we won't ever know.

Skillern is known for -- and should be applauded for -- his concern about county coffers and whether money is being spent efficiently, and Coppinger on Wednesday rightly said he wanted to save taxpayer money by not tipping his hand because it might drive the cost of projects up "if people think there is a designated amount of money to use."

But both men know these decisions should not be made in a vacuum. They deserve a public hearing and a spirited debate, even if the county mayor's original list is ultimately chosen or if commissioners are there "all day." Figuring out how to most prudently spend tens of millions of dollars is not a bad day's work.

Commissioner Tim Boyd made two worthy points on the subject during the meeting, stressing that "a comprehensive plan of when these [projects] are going to be funded and the priority for when they are funded" was necessary and emphasizing "everybody in this community needs to be a part of this discussion. They deserve to know what's going on."

Indeed, despite Coppinger's indication that time was of the essence, the days of paternalistic, back-room deals are -- or should be -- in the past.