|Loudon activist's fight for open meetings wages on By BOB FOWLER,
April 14, 2007
For years, a Loudon County grandmother has waged a crusade to let the sun shine in on local government meetings and public records. Pat Hunter, a plainspoken housewife, calls herself an activist. Loudon County officials, on occasion, have called her a pain.
"She needs to get a life,'' Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp says of Hunter. Arp has tangled with Hunter before when he tried to crack down on public records access. He's called Hunter a member of the "AAA Club - Always Against Anything.'' Arp has derided Hunter's efforts as "just being nosy.''
Hunter has asked local officials for records, meeting announcements and information about employee salaries. She's videotaped public meetings, taken Arp to court over his public records policy, and blasted elected officials when she says they sidestep guidelines for the state's Open Meetings Act - better known as the sunshine law. Hunter repeatedly has e-mailed local news media outlets and has taken reporters to task for not covering meetings. "It's a sad commentary when the press doesn't attend public meetings,'' she said. But Hunter also says that in some recent instances, there hasn't been any advance notice when Loudon County Commission and school board committees meet.
Hunter has sent out a transcript and DVD of a March 12 commission budget committee meeting that records Arp vowing not to have certain discussions "negotiated in the papers.'' Hunter also has reported what she views as sunshine-law violations to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit group that lobbies for public access to government records and meetings.
Hunter's efforts, irksome to some, have sparked interest in open meetings and prompted some officials to declare their devotion to the sunshine law. "I have never to my knowledge broken the sunshine law,'' Arp said.
Hunter said her interest in local government started years ago. She lost - unfairly, in her view - an appeal to the Loudon County Board of Equalization of a 40 percent increase in her county property taxes. "Whenever you get hit in the pocketbook, that's the ultimate reality check,'' Hunter said. "Everything that local government does affects my quality of life and everyone else's quality of life,'' Hunter said.
Some of her comments about Loudon County seem over the top: "It appears we have no rights or freedoms in Loudon County,'' she said. "Others are concerned, but they're afraid,'' Hunter said. "They fear local government. They fear reprisals.'' Sunshine-law violations in Loudon County, Hunter said, are "spreading like out-of-control cancerous cells.'' Hunter recently railed against a series of closed-door meetings by a group of elected countywide officials. They have been talking about possible raises for mid-level county employees in their respective departments, she said.
Those sessions are "informal, brown-bag meetings,'' attendee Chuck Jenkins, Loudon County property assessor, said in an initial response to Hunter's gripes.
Jenkins in a recent e-mail contended that the meetings don't fall under sunshine-law guidelines. Jenkins did an abrupt about-face later and e-mailed a meeting notice.