No Secret Deals Over Donuts: “The Press and the Public Welcome”

In The Daily Dumpster Blog by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Would you like to find out what your commissioners REALLY talk about when they have coffee together? Well, you’re officially invited to crash their meetings and see if there are any conspiracies to uncover. Really – you can. Just get on the county commission public notice mailing list.

Still in the shadow of Black Wednesday almost a decade later, director of the Knox County Commission Jolie Bonavita (my favorite name in local government) has been scrupulous in notifying the news media any time there is the vague possibility that two or more county commissioners might meet.

Flashback to January, 2007. The county commission was informed by the State Supreme Court that it would actually have to abide by term limits, requiring that a dozen elected officials be replaced. Commissioners publicly acknowledged they were working deals over the subsequent days, culminating in a meeting with no public comment and no discussion among commissioners, who held recesses to work literally (and loudly) work backroom deals before returning to vote for their friends and buddies, with no public discussion. Their failure to comply with the Tennessee Open Meetings Act – which requires that the public’s business be conducted in public, not at exclusive meetings – ended up nullifying the entire proceeding, thanks to a lawsuit brought by the News Sentinel.

So today, the county notifies the media any time a couple of commissioners might show their faces in the same place – from awards ceremonies to civic club meetings to friendly dinners — just in case they talk shop. In fact, by sheer number, at some times of year these notices dominate what comes from the commission.

Between Sept. 22 and Oct. 22, eight of them were issued, for a commissioner attending the “Knoxville Soup” fund raiser, pumping gas for United Way, cleaning up parking lots and roadways, and touring the county clerk’s library, among other events. One actually indicated that commissioners Brad Anders and Evelyn Gill were meeting for coffee to discuss county business and meeting procedures.

One wonders whether this kind of over-noticing is a better cover than secret meetings, since the constant flow makes it easy to start ignoring them – and what reporter can really make every coffee klatch to check for nefarious vote-planning? Maybe the better solution would just be not to ever talk about votes outside meetings.

But the notices never offer that guarantee. Instead, they always state that minutes may be taken, but not votes, and “the press and public are welcome.”

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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