Undoing the Lockbox 

When a state legislative committee, spearheaded by Memphis legislator Ulysses Jones, first proposed amending Tennessee's Open Meetings Act some weeks ago to permit some unattended private discussions among public officials, there was a hue and cry from points

across the political spectrum. With prosecutions and other publicized misdeeds of officeholders still fresh memories and with polls and other indicators showing the prestige of legislators — local, state, and national — to be at an all-time low, how could Tennesseans be expected to stand for shutting the doors on public scrutiny?

Yet when not-much-push came to not-much-shove, the members of the Shelby County Commission backed the proposed liberalization to the hilt. In an 11-0 vote Monday, commissioners endorsed the idea of amending the state law to permit private discussions among members of city councils, county commissions, school boards, and other public bodies, so long as the number of officials participating fell short of an official quorum.

No commissioner — not one — would carry a brief for the current law, which, as unamended, prohibits private discussions among groups of two or more. (As an illustration of the absurdity of so complete and literal a prohibition, one commissioner was prepared to offer another a ride back to his office after Monday's meeting was over but then thought to suggest, only half-facetiously, that the two would need to ask a reporter to come along for the ride.) Of the two commissioners who did not vote aye for the amendment proposal, one, Mike Ritz, was absent but had previously voted for it in committee, while the other, James Harvey, merely abstained on the ground that he owed it to his constituents to survey their opinions more completely.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who usually finds himself walking a tightrope between the views of his fellow Democrats (for whom he has often served as the decisive vote in 7-6 party-line situations) and those of his mixed district's constituency at large, spoke convincingly for the amendment, and he was joined on this occasion by two voices which, in wholly disparate mode and manner, normally speak for the commission's Republicans. After noting that he was "not at all in favor of secret government," Chairman David Lillard said the current law was an obstacle to the needs of constituents because, among other things, it prevented one commissioner from filling in another on pending issues which the latter may have missed on first hearing. More importantly, said Lillard, the law can actually "sideline ... the most effective advocates" for constituents who have petitioned their own representatives for specific forms of relief.

Wyatt Bunker, who sees himself as a conservative's conservative, agreed. The current law "hinders the process," he said.

So far, so good. But, as Lillard also noted after Monday's meeting was over, the law, as amended, might require honing by way of further amendment. "I think there are situations, such as the election of officials to fill vacancies, on which it might be desirable to limit contact," he said.

Hopefully, that doesn't mean that the lockbox, once loosened, doesn't turn into a Pandora's box of unforeseen consequences.

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