Open Meeting Laws apply not only to public bodies, but also to the committees they appoint. Generally, the law requires that the entire deliberative process, including committees, be open to citizens. An agency is considered a public body if it has the power to decide policy or recommend actions to another body that either decides policy or makes similar recommendations of its own.
Tennessee employs a full-time staff counsel to assist local governments in complying with the Open Meeting Laws. As Open Records Counsel for the state, attorney Elisha Hodge conducts workshops and advises local elected officials who may have questions about the state’s “Sunshine Law.” Miss Hodge is well versed on how to respond to a public records request and help citizens who may be frustrated when a local government does not comply with the law. Her Nashville office also issues opinions interpreting the law.
Miss Hodge has conducted a workshop for Bradley County elected officials in the past which proved to be very helpful and informative. The last workshop, conducted in October 2009, was attended by 28 people representing every department in Bradley County government. I believe this strong attendance was a good indication of how dedicated your public servants are to providing the most open and transparent government possible in Bradley County.
When the state Legislature passed the Sunshine Law (T.C.A. 8-44-101(a) in 1974, it served notice to all public officials that they must comply with the law, with government policies and with public expectations of proper conduct. It says that all meetings of any governing body are declared to be meetings open to the public at all times, except as provided by the state Constitution. Your County Commission, City Council, Utility Board or committee, or board of commissioners of a utility district are examples of a “governing body” and are subject to the Open Meetings and Public Records Acts of Tennessee.
These laws cover such things as chance meetings between elected officials, adequate public notice, meeting minutes and records, and even when members of one governing body meet with members of another governing body.
The law is strict, and rightly so, because history tells us the inherent tendency of government is to lapse, whenever possible, into secrecy. Therefore, government accountability, open records and access should be a top priority to encourage and facilitate the greatest level of transparency possible in the people’s business.
Your county-elected officials and department heads are people who have chosen to live life in the transparent lane. Their actions are scrutinized by the media, their words are analyzed by critics and they are held accountable through audits, openness and transparency. But that is as it should be because the life and actions of a public servant are held to a higher standard. We are responsible for maintaining the public’s trust and working together to strengthen our community and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.
As mayor, I am proud of the many outstanding public servants in Bradley County who serve because they love this community. I urge you to express your appreciation for the job they do on your behalf. And from time to time it would be good to say the public servant’s prayer found in 1 Timothy 2:1,2 ... “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.”
In my next column I plan to have a detailed explanation of the proposed county budget for Fiscal Year 2012-13. It’s your money and I want you to know how it is being spent. The detailed budget will also be available online at www.bradleyco.net. The budget is scheduled to be voted on by the full Bradley County Commission on July 2.