Sunshine Week

A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

This week, we celebrate Sunshine Week across the nation! Here in Tennessee, the Open Meetings Act, known as the Sunshine Law, ensures that our local and state governments act in the bright sunshine of the public arena.

I could list out all the reasons this is important but one of the nation’s founders said it best back in 1822:

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

James Madison

Over the past year that The Weekly has been around, I’ve had the opportunity to work with both the city and county government. There’s several areas that those governments are doing well when it comes to operating in the public so I wanted to make sure those get highlighted this week.

When it comes to Freedom of Information Act requests, Dora Barnes in the county mayor’s office, Dena Gentry in the county finance department, and Adriane Gay in the city manager’s office have been fantastic to work with. I’ve never had a problem requesting and receiving information from them for any of the work you see here at The Weekly.

With the city and county committee and board meetings, I’ve always been welcomed to attend. Attending a public meeting is often the first recommendation you’ll hear from public officials when you want to get more involved. Fayetteville Public Utilities also livestreams the monthly BMA and County Commission meetings. Those public meeting times and locations are typically published well in advance and usually easy to find, although the courthouse basement rooms can be tricky to find without asking someone.

During the candidate forums in the last election, transparency was top of mind for voters, which led to questions around transparency that candidates answered. After the election, commissioners and aldermen both have praised their respective colleagues for transparency around controversial votes.

For the interviews that you hear on The Weekly podcast, I rarely have a public official decline an appearance on the show. Some even contact me before I get a chance to ask them first. Most public officials recognize they work for us – the community – and want to talk about the work they do for us.

Overall, the power from knowledge that Madison writes about is there for our community if we actively seek it out. And as in all things, our local government can also do better. Since our city aldermen kicked off a discussion around transparency at this week’s BMA meeting, it’s a good time to look at areas that we can improve on.

  • Only the monthly city BMA meeting and the monthly county commission meetings are recorded via video. We could expand this to include any committee meeting, work session, or board meeting. This allows for citizens that can’t physically attend to still access the full discussion of that meeting rather than relying only on public meeting minutes.
  • The county commissioners packet is posted on the county website each month. The city government could follow that lead and post the aldermen’s packet on the city website each month.
  • A time and tool for public review and comment could be built into the legislative process. Governor Bill Lee recently set this up for bills he’s considering. His Bill Review page is here.

I’m sure there’s more ideas out there for what our local government can improve on when it comes to openness and transparency. Nothing in our community is absolutely perfect. We can always find ways to improve and move forward. Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

One final thought – continually improving on our standards for openness and transparency builds greater confidence in our government. It makes accountability possible. It gives us as citizens a chance to review, discuss, and advocate for issues that are important to our community. The transparency efforts we have now are meeting those standards from our Sunshine Law. During Sunshine Week, it’s a great time to look at exceeding that standard and raising the bar for ourselves.

Note: The views and opinion expressed in this editorial are those of the author alone. You can view other editorials and letters to the community here.

8 comments on “Sunshine Week

  1. Laura Redding

    Hear! Hear! While it’s already sunny, it’s always great to bring about more sunshine.

    One thing I mentioned in my community letter last month is around the public meeting times. We all can’t make it to the Thursday morning work session or the Tuesday evening board meeting. Those times are infeasible for any of us with 9-5 jobs. I like the option you mentioned around video recording every public meeting. The county school board just started recording their board meetings. It seems like a good next step in increasing transparency, and at a minimal cost too.

    • Susan Graham

      I like all three of your suggestions Chase. I’d like to reach out to our BMA for their thoughts on your suggestions….

  2. Paul Winters

    Posting the aldermen’s packet each month appears to be a quick and easy thing to do as well. I find the commissioner’s packets really helpful when I watch the channel 6 video of the commission meeting. I get to see the same information they do, which helps explain their votes.

  3. Elizabeth Ryan

    I would love to see more of the meetings live streamed and/or recorded. As a working mom, it’s hard (almost impossible) to attend public meetings in person. I was looking through the list that Alderman Allen posted on her Facebook page this morning. Several committee meetings are during my work hours, the typical 9:00am to 5:00pm Monday through Friday kind.

    I love that the meetings are public, and I’m glad that Alderman Allen and others are encouraging people to attend. If I could, I’d attend them all – from school board meetings to budget committees and to my personal favorite, parks and rec. It’s just that I can’t and so I need some other option, like the video recording.

    I also know that most of the discussion happens in the committee meetings and the work sessions. By the time the issue gets to the full BMA or county commission, the discussion has mostly been wrapped up.

    So to wrap up – please, if you’re a county commissioner, a city aldermen, or any of our other amazing public officials, remember folks like me. Remember what my situation is like. Remember it when you look at ways to be even more open and transparent with us. The more you do, I promise you the more we’ll remember and vote for you when it comes time for re-election!

    • Tim Adams

      As a working dad, I’d echo this from Elizabeth! I often listen to the channel 6 recordings on the way to work. (No video – just audio to be safe!) I read the Elk Valley Times and I watch for the recaps from here on the Fayetteville Weekly website. Those just ain’t the same – no offense towards Lucy or Chase. I want to hear the actual discussions and debates between our elected officials as they tackle issues important to me and my family. Video recordings are great for this!

      • Karen D.

        I saw that post from Alderman Allen as well. It was really helpful! I’m glad I voted for her in the last election. She seems to generally want our town to move forward in a variety of issues.

        One point of view from myself. I’m a millennial that just bought a house here inside the city limits. I’m looking forward to getting more involved, maybe even running for office. But part of my hesitation to run is the times of those committees.

        Public Works at 9:00 a.m. on a Monday. Police & Fire at 3:00 p.m. on a Monday. The work sessions at 8am on a Thursday. There’s no way I can get out of work for those times. Maybe things will change down the road to make those more accessible to working people like me so I could run for office.

  4. I agree with you Chase… all the public servants– both elected and employed– I have asked for information have been very forthcoming. I think it would be very nice if more financial information was readily accessible and as detailed as is feasible.

  5. Victoria

    The public review and comment looks to be a great idea. On bigger votes in the last few years, I’ll read about the issue in the Elk Valley Times on the Tuesday morning that the board is voting. Or I’ll read about the county budget committee vote after it’s already happened. A time for public review – a time to call our representatives like they’re always wanting us to do – would be great.

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