Lunching in the sunshine

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

News gets hard to come by during the holidays, which made this announcement from Knox County Schools’ prolific public information office enticing:

“PUBLIC NOTICE: (14-173) Please note that two or more Board of Education members may meet on Monday, Dec. 15, at 11:30 a.m. at Panera Bread, 2000 Cumberland Avenue. Education issues will be discussed and minutes will be taken. All board members are welcome to attend and will pay for their own meals.”

So it was no surprise that two reporters played Cumberland Avenue parking spot roulette and showed up at the popular campus café. No telling what they were going to be talking about, right?

But there was no news broken at the meeting, which was attended by board members Patti Bounds, Amber Rountree, Terry Hill and Doug Harris, as well as assistant superintendent Elizabeth Alves (who got stuck taking notes). Also present were Knox County Education Association president Tanya T. Coats and Rountree’s three-month-old son, Teddy, for whose affections Hill and Bounds competed as they discussed problems finding substitute teachers.

Afterward, Bounds was a little embarrassed about the announcement. Turns out that she, Hill and Rountree, who regularly attend Bible study together, just wanted to have lunch. In an abundance of caution, they reported it to KCS spokesperson Melissa Ogden, who “sunshined” the meeting, i.e., sent out a formal notice in compliance with the state’s sunshine law.

“We were just going to get together and have lunch. … Our intent was to convey that business ‘may be discussed,’ but it was really just some people wanting to get together and have lunch, but not wanting our conversation to be limited to small talk. I’m surprised we didn’t have cameras rolling,” Bounds said, barely stifling a laugh.

This abundance of caution is typical of Knox County elected officials, who are still smarting from the aftermath of “Black Wednesday,” when County Commission got itself into a world of trouble by appointing spouses, kinfolk and drinking buddies to seats they were being forced to vacate after the state Supreme Court forced Knox County to abide by term limits laws, thumbing their collective noses at Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act in the process.

Even though school board members weren’t the offenders, they are extremely careful about such things, unlike some of their colleagues across the state.

Take the Metro Nashville school board, for example, which recently attempted to choose a new superintendent by secret ballot. Astonishingly unaware of the state’s open meetings law, they were publicly humiliated when Jeff Woods of the alt-weekly “The Nashville Scene” pointed out that state law is pretty clear: “No secret votes, or secret ballots, or secret roll calls shall be allowed.” A do-over followed.

Sometimes scoop-hungry local media get a little aggravated by investing time covering meetings that produce no fireworks. But those of us who’ve been around long enough to remember the bad old days can’t help but appreciate the transparency that has become a way of doing business.

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