Is sunshine overrated?
Journalism's darling, the Tennessee open-meetings laws or "sunshine laws" passed in the 1970s, are currently being flouted by Mayor Herenton's task force on school funding. Its members meet privately, claiming no violation of the sunshine law, because, technically, only a couple of elected officials are face-to-face. The interested parties, or at least the ones that have been invited, send a delegate, and the delegates carry water for and report back to the mayor and the school superintendents and other public powers that be, who are not actually in the room.
Democracy may survive. No one has yet been imprisoned or indicted for violation of the sunshine laws. And calling these "secret" meetings may be a compliment. It implies that people want to get inside, which is questionable in light of the attendance at earlier public meetings on the same issues.
And the end may justify the means. The task force could find some common ground that moves the city and county closer to a better way to build schools and fund classroom instruction.
So says Buck Wellford, a Shelby County commissioner who is not running for reelection and who knows a little about public meetings.
Two years ago he tried to bring all sides together to resolve the same issues. Those meetings, which were open to the public, started out as a textbook civics class. There were high-ranking representatives of both mayors, county commissioners, city council members, school board consultants, chamber of commerce researchers, out-of-town experts, facilitators on loan from FedEx, PowerPoint presentations, and complementary sandwiches. By the fourth meeting, attendance had flagged worse than a Grizzlies game on a rainy night. There were more no-shows than shows. It was horrible television and, after the first meeting, lean gruel for the print media. If Wellford could somehow have mustered the original group one more time, he might have achieved secrecy by media apathy.
One problem, Wellford says, was that the participants "were afraid to talk candidly," and with the media watching they tended to "rehash the same old crap."
Wellford also faults himself.
"I made such an effort to be inclusive that it became unwieldy," he says.
Based on what he's heard about the current task force, he's more optimistic. Former county schools superintendent Jim Mitchell, who is taking part, has a chance to play the role of honest broker in the process, Wellford believes.
"Some people are giving ground on some points," Wellford says. "They have an agreement in principle on single-source funding. It seems to be making real progress."
Mitchell couldn't be reached before press time for comment. County school board president David Pickler, who was in the Wellford meetings and the current meetings, says the privacy factor may be a plus.
"We've been able to avoid some of the circus atmosphere that surrounded Commissioner Wellford's hearings, which were more focused on political posturing than substantive conversations," he says.
At the same time, he warns of potential perils to come.
"Any outcome from this committee is going to be immediately met with substantial skepticism because of the fact it was done in a secret environment, as well as a lack of involvement by suburban mayors, teachers, and PTA leaders," Pickler says.
Sunshine laws were passed in Tennessee and other states in the post-Watergate spirit, which is only a history book chapter to those under the age of 30. Most politicians at least pay lip service to them, if only to court favor with reporters.
No matter how hot the topic, public meetings can drag and be a drag. At a Memphis Board of Education meeting earlier this month, colleagues rolled their eyes and some reporters got up to leave as Commissioner Carl Johnson went through a tedious recitation of single-source funding. Last week's city council committee meeting on financing for the new arena was another example. It featured a presentation of architectural drawings, some general remarks by Mayor Herenton, PBA chairman Arnold Perl, and Grizzlies investor Pitt Hyde that ate up some more time, and some plaudits from council members. Almost all of the local media were represented, but the meeting was more form than substance. At its conclusion, council committee chairman Tom Marshall acknowledged that he had not even given city attorney Robert Spence a chance to speak.
If the school-funding talks are successful, Herenton hopes they will clear the way for consolidation of city and county government over the next four years. As a three-term mayor and a former school superintendent, he may well hold the record for attending the most public meetings in Memphis history. He knows their limitations. He knows the gap between political posturing and reality on this issue better than anyone except possibly civil rights attorney Richard Fields, who has represented plaintiffs in city and county school-desegregation cases for nearly 30 years.
Pickler says that Fields has given the meetings some urgency by imposing a March 22nd deadline if the county schools want to get funding approval and seek bids by May for a new high school in Arlington in 2004.
The committee meets again Friday. Behind closed doors. After decades of stalemate, the players are willing to sacrifice a little sunshine.