County Commission Chairman Larry Henry thinks it's a dandy idea for individual commissioners and county school board members to begin meeting privately in one-on-one sessions to discuss their mutual public business and very public policy disputes. At a commission meeting last week at which he unveiled his idea, he frankly said the best thing about the idea to him is that such meetings would enable the publicly elected officials on both boards to evade Tennessee's Open Meeting and Records Act. Commonly known as the Sunshine law, the law forbids two or more members of a state public body from meeting and deliberating privately on public business outside an announced public meeting.
Henry's idea, of course, constitutes a needless, shameless and contemptuous assault on the spirit of the Sunshine law. As a public policy, it's morally and ethically wrong on its face because of its declared intent to evade the Sunshine law. And as a policy of conspiracy to circumvent the Sunshine law, it may be -- indeed, should be -- subject to legal challenge.
Henry's not in this alone, to be sure. By the time he announced his idea, he had apparently already come to an agreement -- another private agreement on public policy -- with other public officials, including school board Chairman Mike Evatt, who plunged ahead Thursday at a county school board meeting by announcing both the idea, and an agenda to implement the meetings. Evatt said then that school board members would be assigned to private monthly meetings with individual county commissioners on a rotating basis, and that the meetings also would involve County Mayor Jim Coppinger and schools Superintendent Rick Smith.
So members of both bodies, as well as the county mayor and the school system's superintendent are together in this charade against the public interest. And they're all singing the same shameful justification song for the idea.
Coppinger told this paper's reporters last week the meetings will be "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." Evatt said he hopes the meetings will be for "planning what our goals are right now, and what we up to right now."
Coppinger claimed such private meetings are necessary because the county spends more than half of its budget on education. "Anytime you're making that kind of financial commitment, you should be communicating on a regular basis."
That's all true, of course, but that's precisely why the discussions should be held in public meetings. Talking about where the county school system is going, what its priorities are, and how they should be met, all adds up to deliberating on public business. It doesn't matter whether these meetings involve concrete decisions at the moment. The point is, they clearly comprise deliberations on public policies and the conduct of public business.
This is not a small issue. All of the county's taxpayers, through their local property taxes, are already putting roughly half of their local tax revenue into public schools. They surely ought to be in on the deliberations on the use of that tax money.
Indeed, it's rather amazing that members of our County Commission and school board have become so arrogant, contemptuous and disdainful of their public trust and ethical responsibility to keep the public's business public. Holding discussions on the public's business may be more convenient and easier than discussing tough fiscal issues publicly. But public accountability comes with their job. If county commissioners and school board members can't deliberate publicly on why and where new school buildings will go, why so many roofs are leaking, why school budgets are always inadequate, why employers' demands and students' learning opportunities and aspirations can't be adequately addressed, they should simply quit their public jobs and go home.
Given their arrogant official agenda to implement the private-meetings policy in a manner purposely designed to evade the Sunshine law, members of both bodies expose themselves to a legal challenge. Most any citizen or citizens' group should have standing, as county taxpayers, to challenge such a policy of conspiracy to evade the Sunshine law. If successful, it would set a useful legal precedent; if it fails, it at least would bring more scrutiny, and shame, to the county commissioners' and school board members' reprehensible evasion of their public duty.