Dec 26 2007

Pre, Post, and During Late, Late Xmas Post

Posted by Steve Ross in Uncategorized

Xmas is a time for traveling. After traveling 900 miles in a mere 60 hours to Illinois and back, I find myself longing for some non-car oriented time. Thankfully, I don’t have to work, unlike the lovely and talented s.mac, however, I find myself reflecting on the gifts that Santa couldn’t fit into his mighty sleigh. So, without getting too far ahead of myself on the “wishes for the New Year” tip, here is my belated “wish list” of gifts for those who help keep the train derailed.

Congress – With all the toys, gifts, and other consumerist delights of this holiday season loading down his sleigh, delivering 535 spines to our representatives in Congress was probably too tall an order for Santa. Of course, merely delivering spines does not guarantee that they will be used any more than the treadmill collecting dust in the corner. I’m sure there are plenty of Congresscritters that are perfectly content with their current state of amorphousness. So, I’m wishing for an Xmas miracle that would be the envy of bio-tech firms worldwide. For 2008 I’m hoping our Congresscritters will grow a spine and come together to do what they were elected to do, clean up the government and get us out of Iraq. I’m not betting the farm or anything, but a lowly blogger can hope, no?

Self-Righteous Christians – This has been a bad year for you guys. First, your Congress got kicked out in a landslide, then a litany of your leaders got caught with their…um, privates in the, um, well, you know. Can’t you see you bring this on yourselves? My wish for you is that you will read the parts of the bible that you can’t recite from memory. You know, the parts of the bible that talk about humility, unconditional love, and charity. Who smote/begat whom, Leviticus and the ever-popular Deuteronomy are fun reads, but last time I checked, those recount what happened BEFORE CHRIST. As believers in the “post Christ era” perhaps you would be better studying the gospels and trying to emulate Him rather than parrot those who would use you as a blunt instrument to hurl the world back into the dark ages. Just sayin’.

The Punditocracy – Hurtling towards irrelevance, this group of “opinion makers” has taken the once noble art of political reportage and turned it into a collection of elite blowhards who focus on stories better fit for the pages of the National Enquirer than an honest discussion of the issues that confront our nation and our world. $400 haircuts, Obama-Osama who ha, Joe Klein’s admission of ignorance and muscle flexing malevolence toward the blogosphere has marked your steady decline. Whaddya say you take your ego and self-interest out of the equation and start REPORTING on something of substance. Your jobs may depend on it.

Thanks for reading. I hope all of you had a great Festivus – Solstice – Christmas – Hannukah – Ramadan – Kwanzaa…etc.

Dec 22 2007

The War on Kwanzaa

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County

I’m sure Bill-O is peeing in his pants right now.

As reported in today’s CA Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas has filed a suit to stop the celebration of Kwanzaa on County property. The full text of the article can be found here.

Read the article, then read the wiki on Kwanzaa.

First of all, the celebration of Kwanzaa was not founded on any religion that I know of. It’s basis is cultural, though it’s creation was in response to Ron Karenga’s desire to:

… give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.

Based on that knowledge, one must assume that Mr. Thomas takes issue with the cultural message of Kwanzaa, or just wants to make headlines around Christmas so he can get some interview time on Faux News. His assertion of separation of church and state has no basis.

Secondly, one must wonder, WWJD? Would Jesus, in this time of the celebration of his “birth” (though many argue that he was born in spring, and that Christmas is merely a replacement for the pagan Winter Solstice) sue to keep a cultural celebration out of a public building? It’s just a question…

On the other hand, Commissioner Brooks certainly knew, at least on some level, that moving the celebration she has sponsored for the past 12 years from the Pink Palace to a county owned building would create an uproar. Is there an ulterior motive in this change?

Finally, I gotta say that this is one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen and hope that Thomas drops his suit.

Happy Christmakwanzikahnavidad folks!

Dec 17 2007

Audio of City Business Now Available

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Well, it’s not all done, but we now have streaming audio archives of city business available online. You will need Windows Media Player to listen. If you’re a Mac heathen like myself, Flip 4 Mac is a good alternative in the absence of MS support.

The archives go back to September, but I don’t recall seeing this even just a few days ago when I checked it.

Also, on the same page is an rss feed subscription to the Agenda and Minutes, should you want those. They are, as far as I can tell, just WMV files of the meetings instead of a PDF of the minutes or the agendas, but it’s better than nothing.

Still, the most recent minutes of the meetings are from November 6th, 6 weeks ago. It’s a step in the right direction, now if they can just find the PDF button in the toolbar of word….

Agenda feed – feed://

Minutes feed – feed://

Dec 16 2007

Sunshine In Tennessee – Redux

Posted by Steve Ross in Uncategorized

Before I go on I would suggest that you read two editorials from today’s Commercial Appeal here and here. Both provide a view from those who would seek to keep the law as it stands now…these articles, in addition to email and phone conversations I have had with people and elected officials, have helped me further shape my position from my original post.

Secondly, I would suggest reading the full Knox county deision (pdf). No one I have talked to disputes that the Knox County commissioners went well above and beyond the law. Additionally, the information provided in the decision gives some important insight into the legal ramifications of a violation of the law.

Finally, I feel it is valuable if people read the appropriate sections of the law. Both the open meetings and document sections can be found here by looking up sections 8-44-(101-108) (meetings) and 10-7-503,504 (records). The sections of the code follow a simple file method. First click on Tennessee code, then follow the numbers in the order they appear. This has been an invaluable tool to me.

Before I go on, I would like to put it out there that any disagreement I may have with those seeking to change the meetings portion of the law should not be construed as anything other than a disagreement with their position. I hold no grudges against those who disagree with me, and actually seek them out from time to time to keep my views in check, and help me strengthen my arguments. I am for this kind of frank discussion between public officeholders and their constituents, and to the best of my knowledge, there is no provision in any of the statutes listed above that prohibit any such conversation.

In my last post I spend some time with hypothetical situations that are outside the current “Sunshine Law” brought forth by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy in this editorial. Since that post, Commissioner Mulroy has graciously given of his time to respond via email to the post and to further questions that arose from that initial contact. I won’t republish the entirety of that exchange in this space, though there are some interesting bits that come to light as a result of the converstaion.

1. Item 3 – This item, you will remember, asserts that a meeting attended by two elected officials of the same elected body was illegal under the current law. What county Commissioner Mulroy fails to mention in this instance is that this meeting would be legal had the two individuals gone through the appropriate process;

48 hours’ notice on the “sunshine bulletin board” in the basement of 160 N. Main (let alone our normal SOP of emailing all media)

Further, Commissioner Mulroy concedes in his email that there is little likelihood that any suit would be brought under this circumstance.

Granted, a lawsuit is unlikely to proceed based on that scenario, but the over breadth of the law and the resulting uncertainty has a chilling effect on dialogue among local legislators that I know, from personal experience, to be unhealthy and counterproductive.

With that, I call straw man. Technically this may be illegal, but it is hardly settled law as there has been no court ruling on an instance that involves a public event attended by two members of the same public body. Further, we should not blame the law for elected officials being unacquainted with the provisions held therein. For those of you keeping score, that’s one for keeping the law, none for changing it.

2. Lobbying – Another reason individuals cite for wanting to change the law is the adverse effect lobbying has on decisions. Under current law it is illegal for members of the same body to speak with each other outside of regular meetings. This provision does not exclude the efforts of professional lobbyists or members of the administration (Mayors, etc.). While there may be some merit to members of the same body “lobbying” each other privately, in that it is a safe environment that allows certain barriers or personas that the “lobbied” individual may have publicly to be less prevalent, one has to wonder why said individuals cannot do so in the light of the open meetings? If our elected representatives are so fragile that they cannot stand or be swayed by intelligent arguments, then why should they continue to represent us?

Further, it would seem that for issues that are of utmost import to the community served, that elected officials would seek comment from their constituents and use legislative maneuvers to lengthen the open period of a contentious question, to ensure the public interest is served. A tricp to the “sunshine bulletin board” may be in order. (Keep 2, Change 0)

3. Private Public Meetings – In Commissioner Mulroy’s editorial he advocates a “3 member” or “anything less than a quorum” standard for consultations between members of the same public body. In my last post on this issue, I was open to this idea. The thinking on my part was, despite how things and people “should” be, some individuals will only be swayed in private, their public personas getting in the way of progress. This position, of course, can work both for and against you. A section of the editorial I referenced above changed my mind:

Allowing up to three members of a public body to meet privately would be the same as allowing all of them to meet privately. It’s not hard to imagine elected or appointed boards organizing themselves into three-member subcommittees that would relay messages back and forth without public scrutiny.

In this scenario, it would be easy to envision two and three members of public boards using a “round robin” strategy to decide things in private that should be deliberated in public. With that, I must rescind my support of the 2-3 member rule in favor of the existing standard. The public’s right to know all sides of the issue trumps the comfort level of ANY elected official…period. (Keep 3, Change 0)

The issue here seems to be “why can’t elected officials debate in public”? We’ve already seen, in the soon to be former Memphis city council, elected officials who couldn’t discern the difference between personal and rhetorical or positional attacks. This galvanized the council against certain individuals whose style trumped the substance of their arguments, often to their own detriment. This is a human condition that neither legislation, nor legal private meetings will fix. These challenges should not hold the public process hostage.

Elected officials should be self-actualized enough to be able to disagree without feeling personally attacked. They should also be able to debate without attacking personally. If people feel uncomfortable openly discussing issues in a public forum, perhaps they should not seek the office again. Holding public office is a personal decision to surrender a certain level of privacy. In my opinion, the current meetings law, which has stood since 1974, is not only appropriate, but hallmark legislation for the nation.

There has been a disturbing trend
in recent years that has made it more difficult for Americans to know what is going on in the Federal government. This, in the face of constant media “scrutiny”, if that’s what you want to call it. Personally I call it “Paris chasing”, or the “style over substance” that dominates the cable news media. There is less scrutiny on state government, as there are fewer media resources (read: dollars, and interest) involved. Additionally, these bodies are often part time affairs that only meet for a few months during the year. City and County governments may be the most connected to the people in proximity, but have even fewer media resources available to inform the public and check the individuals bodies, particularly in the absence of real competition after the “newspaper wars” of the 80’s and 90’s.

It is for these and many other reasons that Tennesseeans (the people, not the paper in Nashville) should be proud of the sunshine laws as they stand. For over 30 years we have had the most open government, legally, in the nation. We should hold ourselves up as the standard for other states to mimic, not run away from our leadership position because “no one else is doing it”.

That said, the law as it stands is not perfect, as nothing is. There is always room for improvement, and there are many opinions on what is or isn’t improvement. Requiring Internet accessibility of transcripts, votes, meeting announcements and other business is a positive for open government. Further, it is now affordable, where it may not have been in 2004 when the law was last considered.

On the other hand, loosening our belts to be more in line with our less restrictive neighbors is a step in the wrong direction. It is through strict discipline that we can have local governments that are the above the national standard in openness. This is hard and may be uncomfortable to some, but necessary. We should appreciate the openness that we have instead of throwing it out with the bath water, because the bathwater is too cold for some. We have the law that should be the envy of other states, and unless we’re brave enough to keep it, we will see it fall away like so many other rights and privileges have in a political environment that has nurtured fear over vigilance.

It’s time to strengthen, not weaken the law. For my part, I oppose private meetings, support more open records, and hope that local public officials will take this opportunity to communicate more with their constituents rather than seek private audience with their colleagues. This is the nature of a heathy democratic republic. We should support it, hold it dear, and be the standard that all other states aspire to.

P.S. I would like to thank my friends Left-Wing Cracker and Newscoma for their patience and input over the past few days. Their input has been invaluable. Additionally, I would like to thank Shelby County Commissioner, Steve Mulroy for corresponding with me on this issue. We may find ourselves on different sides of this issue, but I’m positive that there are plenty of other issues we agree on. Hell, I voted for him!

Dec 12 2007

Sunshine in Tennessee

Posted by Steve Ross in Uncategorized

I’ve been over this and over this. I’ve read blogs and news articles and even printed up some of the relevant sections of the law, and I just can’t understand some of the objections to the current law as it stands. Here is my understanding of the law in its current incarnation:

If two members of the same body (be they elected, or appointed to a public board/council) want to meet, it must be in public (a regularly scheduled meeting, or a meeting announced to the public and the press).

Seems simple enough, right? In Memphis, if two members of the City Council were to meet in private it would constitute 15% of the council. Hardly a quorum, but assuming that one or both of these members also met privately with other members, it could end up that a majority voting bloc were reached as a result of those meetings outside of the normal operation of the Council. That’s a big problem for me.

Citizens have a right to know the pros and cons of any business that comes before a public body. This is the nature of our democratic republic. Efforts to subvert this flow of information, regardless of whether the public uses it or not, also subvert the spirit of our representative form of government.

Considering all of the shenanigans that have taken place over the past several years, one would think that members of local boards would want to insulate themselves from any appearance of impropriety. Instead we have elected officials seeking to weaken the public meetings portion of the law by increasing the number of people that can meet privately to 2 or 3 or even more maddeningly, anything less than a quorum, to supposedly insulate themselves from potential prosecution. Here’s an idea, don’t meet in secret and you’re safe.

It baffles me that our public officials would want to exclude the public from decisions that affect the public. Surely they understand that there is already a strained trust between them and the people they represent. Why on God’s green earth would they seek to compound that strain by diminishing government transparency? It would seem that public officials, seeking to prove that their nose is clean, would advocate for more transparency instead of less. This is the foundation of my skepticism toward those who would seek to weaken the law.

Last week County Comissioner Steve Mulroy penned an editorial in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. In it, he brings up several hypothetical situations that could get someone in trouble. All three of these hypotheticals cite instances that seem to violate the spirit, if not the letter of the law. From that perspective, these hypotheticals may need some looking into, or at least some clarification from the state AG or the Supreme Court.

For instance, if a member of a public board or commission emails his position as the result of an absence, and that position is read into the record, what’s the problem? The member is on record, and as long as there is no further correspondence back and forth, no harm no foul. Perhaps the solution, in this instance, would be to send the correspondence to the appropriate board reporter (whatever that individual’s title may be for the body) to be entered into the record for that item, as well as a press release to the media outlets serving the area. Seems like a simple solution, no?

How about Item 2, the drafting legislation scenario. If the public entity cannot draft the legislation at a regular meeting, would not an announced special meeting of the appropriate committee be in order? That meeting could be agreed upon and announced at the end of regular business for the primary meeting, and the deliberations would be out in the open. Methinks the Commissioner doth protest too much.

Finally, the silliest of the hypotheticals, Item 3, If two members of the same body are violating the law by appearing at the same PUBLIC event and answering questions from their constituents individually or together, then that is truly stupid. It’s a public freakin’ event, how much more open could it be? One would think that a simple audio or video recording (if not a transcript) of the event would be sufficient to show that nothing untoward was going down (the spirit of the law). If there is some prohibition on members of the same body appearing at a public forum, intent on informing the public of the issues that affect their community, then that needs to be addressed…but Commissioner Mulroy’s prescription seems a bit out in left field.

Under Mulroy’s suggestion, anything less than a quorum would be permitted. That’s way overboard. I’m cool with two members of a body discussing the people’s business in private, as long as there is a disclosure of the meeting to the body the members serve and those disclosures are publicly available. Three or more gets too close to a quorum in some areas, and as such is way too much. By requiring disclosure, it gives the media and the public the opportunity to question their representatives on what was discussed. They may not get a straight answer, but it provides an additional check that would keep some of the shenanigans down a little.

The tone of the debate is something else that I want to address. Members serving on public boards and commissions would do well to offer alternatives, as Mulroy did even though I disagree with him, rather than merely complain about the prohibitions in the law. If the items listed in Mulroy’s editorial and noted in the comments of this blog post are truly prohibited by the law, particularly Item 3, then that deserves some attention. Public officials should be allowed to voice their opinions at public meetings outside the normal functioning of their publicly elected or appointed boards/commissions. It’s a public meeting for chrissakes. From the sound of it, a debate on the issues would be illegal. I find it hard to believe that this is the case.

Finally, there is something that needs to be addressed with the law; the availability of public documents. This is something that I run into constantly, that pisses me off. The minutes of the last meeting available on the Memphis City Council site is from November 6th, 5 weeks ago. There have been 2 meetings since then, and a third will be held next week (12/18). Where are those minutes? Does it take 5-6 weeks to get minutes approved? By the time minutes are approved and posted on the web, a proposed ordinance could be read three times and passed. Is that open government? Do I have to Tivo City Council meetings and sift through all that dryness to keep up with city business?

That’s just stupid. If nothing else, the Council should be required to post proposed minutes to their site 48 hours after the meeting so the people can be informed of the Council’s business in a timely manner that gives them time to react and possibly organize in support or against a proposed ordinance. Minutes from the previous meeting should be approved at the next meeting and posted as final at that time, not 6 weeks later.

Further, finding anything about the functioning of executive appointees or the departments that they head in the Memphis City Government is comically difficult. If members of public boards and commissions want more freedom perhaps they should address these issues first, then come back to their constituents with requests for more leniency.

We’re living in a new era, and governments from the bottom up need to be willing to inform their people of government business in ways that just 10 years ago would have seemed out of reach. This is about trust, the public trust given to elected officials to ex
ecute the will of their constituents, and the trust that those officials will do so in a way that is accessible to the majority with as little real or perceived obfuscation as possible. It is a delicate balance, and perhaps some elements of the current law go overboard, but until someone can quote the sections of the law that are limiting the productivity or public debate of public servants, I think erring on the side of caution is a far better than the alternative.