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Monday, March 19, 2007

Tennessee Series Generates Huge Response

From Editor & Publisher:

The Knoxville News Sentinel's open-meeting lawsuit against 20 current and former members of the county commission has struck a chord with readers.

Hundreds of them. Too many letters and e-mails to print.

It is the very response the American Society of Newspaper Editors might hope for as it concludes Sunshine Week, promoting open government at all levels.

"There is so much negative feedback in this business. Sometimes you get the feeling that everybody hates you and you never can get anything right," editor Jack McElroy said. "To latch onto something where people are supportive of you and enthusiastically so, it is really nice to feel."

The paper's lawsuit contends that Knox County commissioners made private deals before they appointed eight new members to fill term-limited vacancies Jan. 31 in a process steeped in small-town, good ol' boy cronyism and nepotism.

Three of the eight appointees had relatives on the commission, and 13 of the 19 commissioners either work for the county or have relatives that do. None abstained from voting as they filled the eight commission seats and four county offices following a Supreme Court order to recognize term limits adopted by voters in 1994.

It's illegal in Tennessee and most other states for members of a county commission or city council to meet in private to discuss public matters, except in limited circumstances.

But Tennessee's law has few teeth. News media groups, citizen groups and open government advocates are urging lawmakers to toughen the sunshine law. Among the proposals: Impose fines on public officials who close meetings or withhold documents. And last month, Gov. Phil Bredesen announced his plan to establish an ombudsman to help people denied access to public records.

Meantime, the News Sentinel's lawsuit may not be resolved for months. An initial hearing has yet to be set. And thenew commission appointments only run through 2008.

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