Ashe protests closing of museum board ‘workshop’

Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, recently appointed to the board of directors of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, is protesting a closed meeting planned by another board where he serves as a member.

The board governing the Tennessee State Museum, officially known as the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, has scheduled an eight-hour “workshop” March 28 on selection of a new museum executive director to succeed Lois Riggins-Ezzell at some point.

In an exchange of email with Tom Smith of Nashville, who chairs a museum board committee on “succession planning” that set up the workshop, Ashe said the meeting should be open to the public. Smith said that it should not and suggested Ashe was being unreasonably critical. Ashe provided a copy of the email exchange to a reporter.

Here is an excerpt from the initial email inviting members to the session, sent by Danielle Whitworth Barnes, deputy commissioner and general counsel to the state Department of Human Resources:

“Members of the Commission are encouraged to attend the full day as the Commission will engage in an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) as it relates to staff talent. All Commissioners have been invited to relay and analyze the brutal facts of the talent pool and engage in a competency sort.

“The discussion will be guided by Dr. (Trish) Holliday (a department assistant commissioner), who will receive feedback from the Commissioners. This feedback will be essential as we continue forward in the analysis of the workforce. Because the session is designed for Commissioners to relay information to Dr. Holliday for workforce analysis, this meeting will be considered a working session and not open to the public.”

“I think it is a mistake not to have this session open to the public and transparent,” Ashe wrote to Smith.

“I’d have thought you would be delighted to be included in the workshop to provide your input, instead of continuing to question every little thing we do,” replied Smith.

“(Commission board) Chair (Steve) McDaniel appointed a search committee at the last meeting, I am its Chair. This appointment was his right and didn’t require Commission approval, just as this workshop didn’t require Commission approval. Nor does whether or not its a “public meeting” require the commission approval.”

Ashe’s rejoinder to Smith: “Questioning whether a meeting is open to the public is not a little thing as we were briefed by the AG (attorney general) at our last meeting on the broad issue.

“I would hope one can raise questions without being criticized for doing so. You surely by now are aware of my lifelong backing for open meetings and should not be surprised or irked when I do so. I do not take it personally when you differ with me and suggest we keep our differences at that level.”

The state’s Open Meetings Act, also known as the “sunshine law,” requires governmental meetings to be open to the public if they involve any deliberation toward a decision – with some exceptions. Smith said in his email that there would be no deliberation at the workshop, though “feedback is encouraged and I assume will be confidential.”

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government, noted that the state has provided $120 million of taxpayer money toward construction of a new state museum with the board overseeing the construction process. There is no exception to the Open Meetings Act for discussion of personnel matters, she said.

“Why would they want to start meeting in secret?,” Fisher said.
“Closing meetings is becoming a problem across the state and more officials on governing boards need to start asking questions before they go down that path. It’s not transparent. And it’s certainly not in the spirit of Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act.”