By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A renewed push is under way to get Tennessee lawmakers to allow local official to hold more closed-door meetings.
Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who also spearheaded a similar attempt last year, has written to local government colleagues around the state urging them to encourage state lawmakers to pass a bill to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn’t present.
Current law forbids members of a local legislative body from meeting privately to deliberate on public business. It does not ban officials from speaking to each other during chance encounters or from having other conversations.
But Barnwell notes in the letter that the law does not apply to the General Assembly.
“The goal of this legislation is to make the Open Meetings Laws as consistent as possible for all elected officials whether state and local,” he said.
Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, called the effort “misguided.”
News release from Senate Democratic Caucus:
NASHVILLE – State Sen. Jim Kyle pushed for greater transparency in the 108th General Assembly during the first day of session, by moving to apply the Open Meetings Act to the state Senate.
Sen. Kyle’s motion would have amended preliminary Senate rules to apply the act, applying the same standard to Senate caucuses that’s followed by local governments, Senate committees and the Senate itself. Sen. Kyle withdrew his motion when Rules Committee Chairman Mark Norris agreed to take up the issue.
“If Republicans want open government, they can join with us and support this proposal,” Sen. Kyle said. “By amending the rules, their deliberations will be subject to public scrutiny, as should be the standard in state government.”
Under former Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the majority caucus meetings were open to the public, but that has not been the case under Republican control.
“We seven Democratic Senators represent not only our constituents, but the 2.5 million Democrats in Tennessee,” Sen. Kyle said. “Fighting for their values means fighting for open government. It levels the playing field for ideas, where they can be judged on merit, not politics.”
Both the Democratic and Republican caucuses routinely bar media and the public from attending their meetings — a contrast from a few years ago. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey tells Andrea Zelinski that as a “general rule” he thinks the meeting should be open. House Speaker Beth Harwell, well, not so much. “We don’t want to look like we’re hiding things behind closed doors,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, speaker of the Senate, telling The City Paper his chamber’s Republican Caucus meetings will be open “as a general rule.”
“I just think nine times out of 10, in life in general, most problems are caused by misunderstandings and from lack of information. When you see the sunlight shine on us, you say, ‘I see why you do that now,’ ” he said.
Those meetings should only be closed when the caucus elects its leadership next month or when “the family has fights within the family,” he said. “But if we’re discussing state policy, it’s open and always has been as far as I know.”
In the House, lawmakers aren’t so sure how wide they will extend their doors.
“One of the advantages of having a caucus meeting is to let people voice their opinions freely,” said Harwell who said she’d leave decisions to open normally closed-door meetings to the caucus.
Such closed-door meetings on the Hill fly in the face of the intent of the state’s open meetings law, which requires every other government entity to ensure even meetings between two voting members qualify as an appointment worthy of public announcement and scrutiny.
The issue is problematic particularly when Republicans in both chambers have enough members to conduct business without a single Democrat present, say open government advocates.
Republicans will have a 70-28 majority in the House of Representatives and a 26-7 majority in the Senate. In both chambers, the GOP holds a supermajority, or two-thirds of the chamber, and has the potential to hash out public policy debate in closed meetings instead of in public.
“Since the Republican-dominated legislature can pass any legislation at will, it will be more difficult for anyone to successfully challenge bills presented by the majority, but that makes it all the more important that objections to legislation be heard in committee and honestly debated,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government..
The Knox County Commission on Monday will look at adopting a written policy regarding prayer before board meetings, a move officials hope will protect them against lawsuits, like the one recently filed in Chattanooga.
From the News Sentinel: Commission Chairman Mike Hammond said he will add the resolution to Monday’s agenda. He said it’s in response to a June 15 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court against the Hamilton County Commission.
(Note: Previous post HERE)
“Right after I became chair two years ago, I had a meeting with a group of individuals who asked me if I would consider having a moment of silence instead of regular prayer. I told them no,” Hammond said. “Then I saw this thing out of Chattanooga and I felt it may be worthwhile for us to look at it and make sure we’re compliant with the law. We need to establish some guidelines.”
The commissioner said he doesn’t want a moment of silence, which is what the Knox County Board of Education does, because he feels like prayer before meetings “is a part of the history of our country and I feel like we need to carry on the tradition.”
…Knox County Law Director Joe Jarret, whose office crafted a resolution at Hammond’s request, said Hamilton County doesn’t have a “coherent, consistent policy … where invocations are concerned,” which is the primary issue.
“Our courts permit such invocation during public meetings, albeit, they seem to favor those entities that have a written, consistent, non-exclusive policy,” he said. “The Knox County Commission’s current policy is, in my legal opinion, legal and inclusive (although) I would be a lot more comfortable were their practices reduced to writing and formally adopted by the County Commission.”
The resolution that the commission will discuss on Monday includes a number of details on how the board will pray. An invocation will be listed on the agenda but no one on the commission or in attendance will be required to participate.
The commissioner who leads the prayer will also do so “in his or her capacity as a private citizen.”
By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A state lawmaker says a recent legal opinion from the state’s attorney general has soothed concerns about Tennessee’s open meetings law.
Republican Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport said he requested the opinion to clarify that local government officials can meet privately over a meal, as long as they don’t decide public business.
“My county commissioners were concerned they couldn’t even go to lunch together, and I told them I don’t think that’s the intent,” Shipley said. “So essentially that’s what I asked the AG, and he said: No, of course they can go to lunch together.”
Attorney General Bob Cooper cautioned in the opinion that while officials can share meals, they must avoid deliberating about official matters, which “has been defined to mean to ‘examine and consult in order to form an opinion,’ or to ‘weigh arguments for and against a proposed course of action.'”
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers’ long tradition of meeting secretly to hash out budget plans is alive and well.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick confirmed to The Associated Press that key legislators met for several hours at a Nashville restaurant on Sunday to work through budget amendments.
“There have been secret meetings, I’m not going to deny,” McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Monday. “There’s been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s always been.”
David Smith, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, said no administration officials attended Sunday’s meeting. Haslam’s predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, sought to discourage secret budget meetings, though that effort yielded mixed results.
School board members will be allowed to vote via video phone without physically attending meetings for the first time under legislation approved by both the House and Senate despite complaints about allowing elected officials to dodge the public.
“We’re getting dangerously close to a digital proxy system,” said Rep. Mathew Hill, R-Jonesborough, in House floor debate Thursday. “To make it where you don’t have to face your constituency anymore is very, very troubling.”
Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, provided what he called “a little history lesson,” relating that two Oregon state representatives were kidnapped by “radical Republicans” when state ratification of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was in issue during the 1860s. Two men masquerading as the kidnapped legislators then voted for ratification, which passed by one vote in Oregon, Niceley said.
The kidnapping thus effectively “changed the course of history” and “stole power from the states,” he said. Passage of the school board bill, he said, could lead to similar situations.
Proponents of the bill (SB2723), which has been pushed by the Tennessee School Boards Association, said safeguards are provided in the measure to prevent any abuses.
The bill declares that a meeting can be missed only for specified reasons, including illness, military service or a “family emergency.” Each school board across the state must decide to implement the law and, if so, develop it’s own rules for what constitutes a “family emergency.”
A board member could attend meetings by phone a maximum of two times per year and a quorum of the board would have to be physically present at the meeting, not counting those attending by call-in.
By Travis Loller,, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has at least 200 boards and commissions that do everything from promoting soybeans to licensing dentists to overseeing the state’s colleges and universities. Almost all of them are required to invite the public to attend their meetings, but the way they do that is inconsistent at best.
On the home page of Tennessee’s official website is a banner that reads “Participate,” and a link below it says “browse all meetings notices.” But many panels do not post meetings there. Even for those that do, finding a meeting sometimes depends on how you search for it.
For example, Conservation Commission meetings don’t show up using a keyword search for “conservation.” But if you know that the panel is part of the Department of Environment and Conservation, you can find its meetings by browsing the listings for that department.
A retired University of Tennessee journalism professor tried to get state legislators to declare support for open meetings of the General Assembly, Georgiana Vines reports. They didn’t. Dorothy Bowles, also secretary of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and a member of the state Advisory Committee on Open Government, said Saturday at a legislative forum she realizes the state Constitution allows the Legislature to be open in its business unless lawmakers determine to meet in secret.
“How about the General Assembly passing a resolution saying (its business) would be open?” she asked, adding she realized one legislative body cannot impose its will on future lawmakers. She said recent redistricting showed a need for more openness.
Bowles also said she feels a resolution is necessary since the state County
Commissioners Association has been pushing county governments to seek a law that would allow elected officials to meet in private as long as the group does not have a quorum.
Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said he feels the Legislature deals with openness through its own rules. He also said he had gone through four redistricting sessions and feels the recent action was the “most transparent.”.
…Moderator Gene Patterson of WATE asked if discussions could be posted electronically such as is done by the Knox County Commission. Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville,said the idea would not work with 132 House members.
Brooks, who chairs the House Family and Children Affairs Committee, said he regularly has 15 to 20 conversations with legislators.
“I don’t have the staff to send out additional emails,” he said.
Haynes, vice chair of State and Local Government Committee, said he opposes changes in the law and said changes would not clear the committee this year. Note: A recent column by yours truly on the subject is HERE.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — House Speaker Beth Harwell has voiced opposition to efforts to water down Tennessee’s open meetings law and has called on a Republican colleague to drop a bill seeking to make changes to the current rules.
Spokeswoman Kara Owen said in an email Tuesday that Harwell does not support efforts to allow members of local governments to meet behind closed doors as long as a quorum isn’t present.
Owen said Harwell had spoken to Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin and that he agreed not to pursue the bill this year.
Casada acknowledged he talked with Harwell and has asked the Tennessee County Commissioners Association to talk with their members and “make sure we’re going down the right path that everybody wants to.”
“So until they all get in agreement, I’m not going to carry something that we’re not all in agreement on,” he said. “We’ll look at it this summer and go from there.”
Frank Gibson, public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association, said he applauds Casada’s decision.
“The majority of the county commissioners that have considered this proposed change have rejected it and we think that it’s an acknowledgement that the sunshine law has served the citizens of this state well for almost four decades,” Gibson said.
Harwell joins Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in opposing the measure. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville has said he’s against weakening open government laws but agrees with proponents that some of the current open meetings rules are too onerous.
Sen. Ken Yager, the chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, has also been vocal about changing the law, saying it would prevent transparency and undermine the public’s trust in government.
“Citizens need to understand how government decisions are made,” the Harriman Republican said recently. “Lack of transparency prevents the public from actively participating in government and from raising questions or expressing their opinions.”