More on Push for Sunshine Law Revisions

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A push to dilute Tennessee’s open meetings law is based on a misunderstanding of restrictions now on the books, an open government advocate said.
The Tennessee County Commissioners Association is spearheading an effort to get the General Assembly to amend the Sunshine Law and allow members of government bodies to discuss public affairs in private, as long as the discussion involves less than a quorum.
The law currently forbids two or more officials on a local legislative body, such as a county commission or city council, from meeting privately to deliberate on government matters.
At least two counties have endorsed the effort, and Sullivan County and Unicoi County commissioners are scheduled to take up the issue Monday.

Sullivan County Commissioner Bill Kilgore, a board member for the statewide county association, introduced the resolution. He told the Bristol Herald Courier that he can’t discuss a proposed piece of legislation over the phone with another commissioner without violating the law (
“I can’t call someone up and ask them to be a co-sponsor of a bill,” Kilgore said.
Frank Gibson, founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the law does allow local officials to have a phone conversation or lunch but not to negotiate for their votes.
“I think some of the concerns about this are being over exaggerated,” Gibson said. “Thousands of governing officials have operated under this law for 37 years. The only thing that has changed is the members of those bodies.”
Kilgore said county commissions should play by the same rules as the Legislature. The Sunshine Law applies only to local governments. The General Assembly has enacted a statute that allows legislators to hold private discussions when there is less than a quorum of the body present.
Sullivan County defines a commission quorum as a majority of the 25-member board. The Kingsport Times-News reported that in previous committee votes, 12 commissioners have indicated they support Kilgore’s measure.
According to the Tennessee Press Association, Anderson, Rhea and Roane county commissioners have rejected the resolution, Obion and Williamson county commissioners adopted it and Cannon County took it off a meeting agenda.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has said he opposes the change.

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