PUBLIC NOTICE: Corruption Hides In The Dark

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NASHVILLE — Tennessee has at least 200 boards and commissions that do everything from promoting soybeans to licensing dentists to overseeing the state’s colleges and universities. Almost all of them are required to invite the public to attend their meetings, but the way they do that is inconsistent at best.

On the home page ofTennessee’s official website is a banner that reads “Participate,” and a link below it says “browse all meetings notices.” But many panels do not post meetings there. Even for those that do, finding a meeting sometimes depends on how you search for it.

For example, Conservation Commission meetings don’t show up using a keyword search for “conservation.” But if you know that the panel is part of the Department of Environment and Conservation, you can find its meetings by browsing the listings for that department.

Of the groups that don’t use this calendar, some post notices on their individual webpages, some send notices to newspapers and a few seem to give no public notice at all, according to an Associated Press analysis. The analysis was done for Sunshine Week, an annual initiative begun in 2002 to promote greater transparency in government.

Frank Gibson, the public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association, said he was not surprised by the findings. He spent half an hour recently trying to find a meeting notice on the state comptroller’s website. It was there, but not posted prominently.

Part of the reason for the confusion is that the state’s Sunshine Law requires “adequate public notice” of government meetings, but it does not specify when or how that notice should be distributed. And there is no one in state government tasked with making sure the state’s various public bodies comply.

Further, there is no penalty for violating the law, even intentionally. The only remedy if a panel takes an action at a secret meeting is for a citizen to sue to have that action overturned.

That happened earlier this year when an immigrant rights activist sued the Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission over a new policy that required local jailers to question inmates about their immigration status. Plaintiffs claimed the policy was developed in secret, at meetings for which no public notice was given and through emails between commissioners.

Stephen Fotopulos, director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, was one of a group of people who had been deeply interested in that policy when it was being discussed in the state legislature. But he was unaware it was being crafted by the POST Commission until after it had been adopted.

From his perspective, he told the commission, “the process fell into a black hole.”

The lawsuit was dropped after the commission agreed to rescind the policy.

Some states do have penalties even for unintentional violations of their open meetings laws. In Florida, an unintentional violation can mean a $500 fine. Someone intentionally violating the law can be removed from office or even jailed, although the latter has happened only once, said Barbara Petersen, president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

Florida law also allows a citizen who prevails in a lawsuit to recover attorney fees and court costs, which can sometimes run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“That’s a big stick,” Petersen said of the penalties, adding she thinks they are part of the reason compliance is good.

Florida also has an Administrative Procedures Act that spells out exactly how statewide panels must give notice of their meetings – “by publication in the Florida Administrative Weekly and on the agency’s website not less than 7 days before the event.”

The Florida Administrative Weekly can be viewed online and all current meeting notices are listed there. Archived editions also are available.

In Tennessee, most groups do post some kind of notice somewhere. But finding it is what’s difficult.

The Tennessee Technology Development Corporation was created by the legislature to foster the development of science and technology companies.

It received $2.2 million from the state this year and last year, and its board meetings are subject to the Sunshine Law. But there’s no meeting information for the group on the state’s website.

University of Missouri Journalism Professor Charles Davis, who specializes in government access issues, said the “Participate” section of the website is a good start, but it shows the difficulty of dealing with multiple bureaucracies that “don’t all row in the same direction.”

Davis said it is important to pay attention to even some of the most insignificant-seeming public bodies.

“A life in journalism will convince you that it’s those things that nobody pays attention to that are often the places where something is hiding,” he said.

He cited the example of the small California city of Bell, where officials are accused of looting more than $5.5 million from city funds before an investigation by the Los Angeles Times brought the corruption to light.

“It was a little two-bit town nobody was paying any attention to,”Davis said. “Corruption hides in the dark.”

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