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.