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.
The county commission has denied wrongdoing. And it has refused a settlement offer that would require it only to recast its vote in public, which would be the worst outcome for the commission under current law if the newspaper wins the lawsuit.
One new commissioner even threatened to pull the county’s legal advertising from the paper, worth about $140,000 a year, but later apologized.
Still, the 115,000-circulation daily newspaper, a member of the E.W. Scripps Co. chain, feels it already has won _ with its readers.
“I have a whole new level of respect for Knoxville’s hometown paper.Thanks for looking after the public’s interest,” reader Justin DeAngelo wrote.
“I applaud your efforts to champion character and integrity,” reader Elaine Davis said.
“Press the suit. Decent citizens thank you,” reader Will Posey echoed.
“This may be the best move I have seen the NS (News Sentinel) make in my lifetime,” added another who only gave his initials, JBR.
Certainly, there have been cynics. More than one reader suggested the suit was a ploy “by this newspaper to simply sell more newspapers.”
But there were readers like Sean Driscoll, who wrote that great newspapers “represent the public’s interest at times such asthese” and without which “the true mess of Vietnam” or Watergate would never have been known.
“I, at this moment, would have to put our local paper in the category of great based on this action,” he wrote.
Commission Chairman Scott Moore has vowed to fight the lawsuit, saying the commission did what it was supposed to do. “Some people like it. Some people didn’t,” he was quoted as saying. Moore didn’t return calls for comment from The Associated Press.
Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, powerless to intercede, said in a measured statement that “regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, we really hope that at the end of the day, it will giveeveryone a better understanding of how the Sunshine Law works and how we can all be certain we are in full compliance.”
The Knox County situation “is a carbon copy of the sort of violation that the Sunshine Act was written to prevent and has been interpreted as such by the courts,” said Frank Gibson, a former editor at The Tennessean newspaper and now executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
“To have a case in which the whole thing plays out on camera (on live local TV), in which you have players (commissioners) telling reporters, ‘Oh yes, we have talked about this (privately),’ that is significant,” Gibson said.
Attorney Richard Hollow represents the News Sentinel in the lawsuit and heads the First Amendment hotline for the 130-newspaper Tennessee Press Association.
“The fact that this lawsuit has been brought and that the underlying circumstances which brought it about exist tells us that the 33-year history of the Sunshine Law has unfortunately had a very limited impact on public accessibility,” Hollow said.
McElroy said the News Sentinel’s street sales shot up by several hundred copies immediately after the commission vote Jan. 31, and the continuing coverage may have generated some new subscriptions.
“It has been very gratifying to find that doinggood watchdog journalism does seem to be working to the market benefit of the newspaper. That is not always the case,” McElroy said. “But in this case, the public is mad and they are glad the newspaper is standing up for them.”
McElroy got a sense of that last week while greeting the public at a community event called Women Today Expo, where the hot topics typically turn to fashions, makeup and cooking.
Three women came up to him just to praise the paper.
“Keep going at ’em,” they told him. “Don’t stop.”