Gerber: Open talk on open meetings

Gerber: Open talk on open meetings

February 12th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

What happens when journalists and politicians meet?

Well, they often end up debating open-meetings laws (not to mention professional wrestling).

That was the case last week in Nashville during the winter meeting of the Tennessee Press Association.

Journalists typically support strong open-meetings laws that allow the public access to meetings at which elected officials debate everything from how much you pay in taxes to whether the zoning on the lot next door gets changed. The laws allow us to do our jobs - get information to the public and act as a government watchdog.

But it seems that every year, more legislation is proposed that would take away some of the public's access to meetings and records.

Tennessee's Open Meetings Act, known as the Sunshine Law, requires that bodies such as school boards, county commissions and city councils give the public notice of their meetings and bars two or more members from deliberating in secret.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada, R-Thompson's Station, would have allowed local legislative bodies to meet in private as long as a quorum was not present, The Associated Press reported. The House sponsor of the bill dropped the measure - at least for this year. Still, a slew of other proposed legislation would limit the public's access to government meetings and records.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey didn't shy away from the issue of open meetings when talking to a group of TPA members. In fact, he brought it up, asking members of the press to help better define what deliberation is.

In the past, he's told the AP that while he opposes weakening the Sunshine Law, local officials shouldn't have to fear legal action for discussing public matters outside of official meetings. Last week in Nashville, he asked if it should be acceptable for two or three county commissioners to meet to discuss issues that could be considered county business. The example he used was two commissioners meeting to discuss potholes or guardrails.

Even if they are not prosecuted for doing that, he said, they may be persecuted.

Ramsey, a Republican, admitted he doesn't have the answer and couldn't say how deliberation should be defined.

"It's like that old story about 'What is pornography?'" he said. "You know what it is when you see it, but how do you write it down on a piece of paper?"

The speaker said he raised the issue to see if he could reach an understanding with the media.

"I just brought it up to see if there's any way we can come

together on this," he said. "But do I know the answer? No. ... I don't know how you define deliberation."

He didn't address what happens when the conversation about a pothole turns into one about more substantial issues.

Even though Ramsey is asking for leniency on the Open Meetings Act, something few journalists are likely to support, he insists he is a supporter of open government. He claims that since he became speaker of the Senate, in 2007, the General Assembly has become more open and more accessible to the public than ever in Tennessee's history.

He points to the fact that legislative committee meetings are streamed live over the Internet and archived so people can watch them later. Public television will now air legislative sessions live across the state, he said.

Answering a question from Times Free Press political reporter Andy Sher, Ramsey said he'd make sure members of the press have access "most of the time" to Republican Caucus meetings, although he predicted reporters will be bored and leave. Reporters are not invited to the caucus meetings, which are not subject to the open-meetings law.

Another journalist asked whether lawmakers could make the Sunshine Law apply to the legislature. Ramsey said change isn't necessary.

"I don't see why we need to change something that is working so well," he said. "It's not broken."

Speaker of the House Beth Harwell quickly dispensed with any doubt about where she stands on the issue, saying she supports the current law.

"I think that it has served our state well. I don't see a need for change," she said at the TPA meeting.

Last month, Harwell took a stand against Casada's bill.

Gov. Bill Haslam also opposed any changes to the Sunshine Law.

"I saw it work as a mayor," Haslam, who was mayor of Knoxville for seven years, told the journalists.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, a Democrat, told the journalists the press is essential to open government.

"Y'all are our best friends," he told the room of journalists. "Without an active press corps, society is damaged. People's right to know is damaged."

As for professional wrestling, state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, entertained a group of Times Free Pressers at a TPA reception. He chatted at length, and with great passion, about wrestling legends like Tojo Yamamoto and Rick Rude. His advice? If you want to understand America, watch professional wrestling.