Pulling Shades On Sunshine Law?


Tennessee's Sunshine Law ensures government meetings are open to the public, but a move by the Tennessee County Commissioners Association threatens to significantly change the law.

Sponsored by State Rep. John Bragg in 1972, the law requires the public to be notified of any meeting of two or more elected officials in which public business is discussed.

Jerry Gaither, founding president of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, Woodbury Mayor Harold Patrick and Cannon County Executive Mike Gannon are voicing opposition to the proposed changes.

“I think the current Sunshine Law is a valid and meaningful law,” Mayor Patrick said. “I don’t think it is something the (state) legislature needs to tangle with. You are discouraging public participation in the governmental process when you do that.”

Mayor Patrick who in addition to being mayor served on the Cannon County Commission for 10 years and then 11 years as County Executive added, “The harm is they (public officials) would talk policy when they meet and lay the groundwork for how they will vote, and I think that is improper.”

County Executive Gannon said the county has always abided by the Sunshine Law and “so far it has worked well. Anytime county business is discussed it should be in an open forum.

“I think all county business should be conducted with transparency.”

Williamson County Commissioner and current Tennessee County Commissioners Association President Bob Barnwell recently complained the law was overly burdensome.

He is asking city and county governments across the state to pass a resolution allowing local elected officials to meet in secret as long as a quorum is not reached.

In Cannon County, that would mean that four commissioners could discuss public business in secret without keeping records or notifying the public of the meeting.

The resolution comes before the Cannon County Commission Tuesday evening, but no date has been set for the Rutherford County Commission to hear it.

Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Brag feels the Sunshine Law should be left alone and opposes Barnwell's resolution. He has no knowledge of any such resolution coming before the Murfreesboro City Council.

Bragg is also past president of the Tennessee Municipal League, which represents Tennessee's city and county governments, and his father, former State Rep. John Bragg, was president of the Tennessee Press Association in 1957.

"My father worked to pass this law, which ensures government is open and accountable to citizens," he said. "I have not found this law to be burdensome to Murfreesboro government in any way. In fact, the law has fostered trust between citizens and elected officials here in Murfreesboro, and I see no reason to change that."

Jerry Gaither, founding president of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association and former Rutherford county commissioner, voiced similar concerns.

In 1968, Gaither became a Rutherford County "Squire," as county commissioners were called in those days.

One of his priorities was to establish rules for the county's committee system, but he could not find a good example anywhere in the state.

"Back then we had 30 or more committees that met whenever they wanted without a quorum, no agendas or minutes were kept, no press, no rules, and sometimes arguments would nearly come to blows in the hallway," he said.

He said filling vacancies for public office and decisions on where to build roads would be sprung on the commission without notice, having been predetermined by secret meetings of several commissioners beforehand with no record of what was discussed.

So he chaired a committee charged with determining comprehensive rules guiding record keeping, public notification and press access for all committee meetings.

This committee was the first in the county to hold public hearings in which all citizens and elected officials could participate and meeting times were announced to the local newspaper in advance.

County Judge James Threet initially opposed Gaither's plan, but an encouraging word from Squire Vester Waldron quickly changed Threet's mind.

"Squire Waldron told him, 'Now James you ought to get behind this plan because it will save you a lot of headaches and trouble," said Gaither. "He had a lot of respect for Squire Waldron and from then on James was one of my biggest supporters."

Chairman Gaither presented the new rules to the Rutherford County Commission, and they were adopted by unanimous vote in 1969.

Those rules remain largely intact, guiding Rutherford County government to this day.

He organized the Tennessee County Commissioners Association the same year with its first meeting at MTSU, also becoming its first president and obtaining funding for the organization with John Bragg's help.

Rutherford County's committee system became the model for county commissions throughout Tennessee.

Gaither toured the state presenting his plan to local governments from Bristol to Memphis, gaining acceptance in local communities by keeping one rule foremost in his approach.

"I was told early on that to get anything done you had to convince three people in each community - the ones who had keys to the bulldozer, the jailhouse, and the bank vault," he said, referring to the Road Superintendent, the Sheriff, and the local banker in charge of county funds.

Gaither also influenced Rep. John Bragg in crafting his Sunshine Law legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly in 1972, which gained passage and was signed into law by Governor Winfield Dunn in 1974.

"It could be said that the Sunshine Law really started right here in Rutherford County," said Gaither.

He is deeply concerned about changing the law, adding "public business ought to be discussed out in the open.

"Any government that operates in secrecy is no longer a democracy," he said. "If you don't have transparency, you don't have the democratic republic that we have.

"After the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what he thought had really taken place," Gaither added. "Franklin said, 'We've created a republic, if we can keep it.'"