Testimony expected to begin Thursday in newspaper lawsuit

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Testimony is expected to begin Thursday in the trial of a newspaper lawsuit alleging "sunshine law" violations by the Knox County Commission.

The Knoxville News Sentinel claims commissioners violated the state's Open Meetings Act or "sunshine law" when they allegedly discussed their votes privately before filling eight term-limited county commission seats and four other officeholders in January.

It's illegal in Tennessee and most other states for members of a county commission or city council to meet in private to discuss public matters, except in limited circumstances.

Besides newspaper editor Jack McElroy, nine citizens have also filed suit against the commission. Before the trial began this week, several commissioners acknowledged in sworn statements various pre-meeting discussions and conversations about the appointments.

McElroy attorney Richard Hollow and attorney Herbert S. Moncier, who represents the nine citizens, said in opening statements Wednesday that those admissions are part of a mass of circumstantial evidence proving the commission violated the law.

"How does that stack up with the concept of public accountability?" Hollow asked. "How does that stack up with the concept of public transparency? How does that stack up with the idea that all power lies in the people?"

Knox County Law Director John Owings, however, said the appointments were made at a public meeting during which votes were cast in public.

If there were any back hall discussions, Owings said it was politics.

"There may be a lot of politics in this case," he said. "Sometimes politics are unpleasant, but this case is not about politics. At the close of this trial, you'll be asked to decide if the plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of the evidence whether (the) Knox County Commission deliberated ... in private."

Hollow told jurors that this is their opportunity to send a message to commissioners to comply with the law. "Let us see what you do.

Implement this law that says the public business should not be conducted in secret," he said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)