Tennessee editorial roundup
Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:
The Johnson City Press on local governments being transparent about business matters:
Some local elected officials are under the mistaken impression they entitled to see and vote on information the rest of us do not see.
Tennessee’s public records and open meetings laws are in place to protect the citizens’ interests in matters of government. All too often our local government officials either willfully disregard those laws or do so out of ignorance.
We’re not sure which was the case last week when the Carter County Commission voted to purchase land and a building for a new recycling center without publicly disclosing the location. County employees and elected officials went to great lengths to suppress that information, resorting to angry calls to this newsroom after learning of the Press’ intentions to publish the location. A reporter had been with committee members when they toured sites. The claim was that the seller would back out of the deal were made public.
County Mayor Rusty Barnett went as far as to say the county made a mistake by inviting our reporter on the tour. He’s wrong. Meetings involving elected officials toward a property purchase are not among the exceptions to the open meetings law.
No, the mistake was in promising the seller a secret deal.
That’s not how an open government should work.
Local governmental commissions and committees do the public’s business. With few exceptions, Tennessee requires that business to be conducted in the open.
It’s the citizens’ business when committees vote. It’s the citizens’ money Carter County is spending on that recycling center. None of that should take place behind closed doors or under a veil of secrecy. Every member of the Carter County Commission was fully aware of which site — Lewis Wood Products property in the Cherokee Industrial Park — they were voting to acquire.
These shenanigans occur every year, seemingly in every county in our region. The public has been shut out of everything from budget discussions to sessions of full municipal and county governing bodies. A glaring recent example was the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s clandestine session during its quest to build and then lease a school to Washington County.
Our local governments are not alone in these messes. They happen across Tennessee, some even requiring court actions.
We have a challenge for State Sen. Rusty Crowe and his colleagues in the Tennessee General Assembly: Introduce and enact legislation requiring local officials to undergo periodic training in the state’s public records and open meetings laws.
At this point, the law merely requires various support organizations — the Municipal Technical Advisory Service, the County Technical Assistance Service and the Tennessee School Boards Association — to develop programs for educating elected officials about the open meetings laws and compliance.
The law says nothing about requiring participation in those programs or about periodic updates. The legislature should change that.
Meanwhile, we have a message for local government officials — both elected and appointed. It sits atop this page every day. For decades, our motto has been “What the people don’t know WILL hurt them.” Take that to the bank.
The Kingsport TimesNews on homeless issues:
Historically, vagrancy laws made it a crime for a person to be down on his luck through no fault of his own. These laws criminalized being homeless and jobless, which is why they’ve largely been stricken from the books.
But what to do with homeless people continually arrested for minor offenses and whose actions begin to pose a public threat?
Kingsport has in progress a response to its homeless population that may result in an organized effort to get them off the street and into a program of self-support. Meantime, we have folks like Ricky L. Laney, 51, charged with lighting another homeless person on fire.
Police were alerted to a fight at Memorial Gardens Park next to Dobyns-Bennett High School on Fort Henry Drive and found a man who said he had been asleep on a bench when he awoke to find his pants, shoes and blankets on fire. He said Laney was walking away. Laney admitted that he and the other homeless man had been in a fight. The victim believed the incident was possibly motivated by an incident a couple weeks prior, when Laney accused him of stealing a bottle of liquor.
Laney was charged with arson and aggravated assault. During transport to the Kingsport jail, he allegedly made threats about the other man: “As soon as I get out I’m gonna kill him.”
This is Laney’s fifth arrest this year. Prior to the most recent incident, he had been charged with public intoxication and resisting arrest. In the past four years, Laney has had at least 18 additional arrests in the city for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, theft and trespassing. That’s at least 23 arrests in five years.
Tennessee is among states with tools to deal with habitual offenders. The state has a three-strikes law intended to keep career criminals locked up for life, but that requires three felonies. The state had a habitual motor vehicle offender law which also required multiple serious traffic and criminal charges, but did away with it this past June.
Most homeless folks get by with the help provided, but some steal to support themselves on the street, and some are repeat drug and alcohol offenders, keeping police busy beyond what should be tolerated.
Even if Kingsport develops a program that provides a way off the streets for those willing to take it, the city will still have homeless people who are a continued threat to the public health, safety and welfare. For those, there should be mental health evaluations and laws that protect society from them, and them from themselves. It’s often a fine line between tough policy and compassionate assistance.
The Crossville Chronicle on The Minister’s Treehouse:
Cumberland County awoke on Oct. 23 to the news that the legendary Minister’s Treehouse had burned to the ground.
What was believed to be the world’s tallest treehouse was the labor of a man of God who said the Lord told him to build it. The story behind it rose to proportions matching the size of Horace Burgess’ creation. It attracted tourists worldwide who spent hours traipsing through the winding 10-story structure that spanned across seven trees.
Though the landmark was closed by the state fire marshal in September 2012, enthusiasts never waned in their hopes that it would reopen. As news of its swift destruction swept across the region and nation Wednesday, many turned to social media to express their heartbreak and share memories from the structure’s heyday.
“Breaks my heart to see the treehouse gone every time I went to the treehouse I felt the spirit of the Lord,” said a Facebook user on the Chronicle’s page.
“Now I’ll never get to see it,” another posted on “Abandoned Tennessee,” a Facebook group devoted to treasured sites of yesteryear whose members frequently express a fondness for the iconic structure.
It took mere minutes to destroy the years of work Burgess lovingly poured into The Minister’s Treehouse. But its monumental impact exceeded the structure itself. That’s a big feat for a small-town minister and his creation tucked away in a corner of the Cumberland Plateau — and it’s one that fire cannot undo.
Through love, the legend lives on.