updated 10/16/2007 8:27:44 PM ET 2007-10-17T00:27:44

A judge threw a dozen officeholders out of their jobs after a jury ruled the officials were hand-picked behind closed doors, dealing a severe blow to secrecy, which open-government advocates hope will serves as a warning to other cities and counties.

The Knoxville News Sentinel and a citizens group sued the Knox County Commission, alleging it violated the state’s Open Meetings Act in January, when it filled vacancies for eight commissioners and four countywide officers, including the sheriff.

“This is a spark that could catch fire in Knox County and spread throughout the nation,” said attorney Herb Moncier, who represented the citizens group. “The people took back their government.”

The vacancies arose because of a Jan. 12 ruling by the state Supreme Court, which upheld term limits prohibiting county officials from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms. All 12 of the elected officials had exceeded their term limits, including some re-elected only a few months before.

County commissioners met on Jan. 31 to fill the positions.

A jury found months later that commissioners deliberated and voted in secret. Secret deliberations continued during recesses in the meeting, and the vacancies were filled with what Moncier described as “relatives, cronies and supporters.”

Based on the jury verdict, Chancellor Daryl Fansler immediately threw all 12 officials out of their jobs on Oct. 5. The judge didn’t tell commissioners how to fill the vacancies, but he warned that they could be jailed up to 10 days for each violation if they break the law again.

Secrecy problems across U.S.
Tennessee and most other states bar local government leaders from meeting in private to discuss public matters, except in limited circumstances. The laws were passed three decades ago in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

But problems with local governments conducting business in secret persist across the nation.

“If there is a national picture, it is one of never-ending tension between advocates of openness and public officials bent on secrecy,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Loren Cochran of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., said the public “is standing up and complaining when they are shut out.”

“I don’t know that there is any less secrecy by government, but you are seeing the public feeling more empowered,” said Cochran, who directs the committee’s Freedom of Information Service Center.

Commission Chairman Scott Moore is worried that the case has created a politically charged atmosphere in Knox County, one of Tennessee’s most populous counties with more than 400,000 residents.

“In the climate we are in, three commissioners seen eating lunch at Shoney’s, by gosh we know they are talking about county government,” he said. “I think it brings government to a halt,” Moore said. “The Legislature is going to have to look at this and put common sense into it.”

Official says law is too vague
David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, complained that Tennessee’s open-meetings law is too vague. “You can’t always tell when you have crossed the line,” he said.

Attorney Richard Hollow, who represented the newspaper and helped write the state’s open-records law, said that argument has been rebuffed by courts.

Tennessee’s law says two or more members of a public body can talk informally without violating the law so long as “no chance meetings, informal assemblages or electronic communications shall be used to decide or deliberate public business.”

A special 18-member legislative study committee is reviewing Tennessee’s open-meetings and open-records laws.

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said his group has suggested lawmakers revise the law to better define the rules.

The Knox County case, he said, is “a perfect example of why we have a sunshine law to begin with. It (also) exposed some of its weaknesses.”

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