A lawsuit in Greene County over the audibility of open meetings has caused government watchdogs to question the Hamilton County Commission’s use of telephones at weekly meetings, according to the Chattanooga TFP.
Residents of Greene County are suing its industrial development board because, they say, the members deliberately used hushed voices at a controversial public meeting in July so the audience could not hear their deliberations. (Note: Previous post HERE.) One resident, Eddie Overholt, was ejected from the meeting and arrested after he asked board members to speak up.
Here in Hamilton County, commissioners typically speak in clear voices and hold their meetings in plain view for the public — except when they call each other with phones at the dais.
It happens once or twice a meeting. A commissioner will have the floor, discussing a budget item or a need in his or her district. Meanwhile another commissioner will pick up the phone. A second later another will answer. Once the conversation is over, both hang up and rejoin the debate. No one in the room can know what they discussed — whether it’s Monday Night Football or how much money to spend on schools.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that, to her knowledge, this practice is unique to Hamilton County. And it likely needs to change.
“Unless they are just talking about last night’s basketball game, it sounds to me like they are deliberating about an issue at hand, and that would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act if people can’t hear,” she said.
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.”
Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit organization that declares itself dedicated to state and local government transparency, has released a 2013 Transparency Report Card grading every state and the largest counties, cities and school districts within each state on the availability of information on government websites.
Government websites were graded “A” to “F” measuring available content available against a checklist of information all governments should provide to citizens.
Tennessee gets a grade ‘B’ overall and ranked 24th in the nation. Tennessee’s graded counties got a ‘B-‘ and cities a ‘C+’.
The full report is HERE. H/T Mike Donila, who posts some commentary on Knoxville and Knox County ratings.
The Tennessee Legislature, which through much of the 1960s would routinely exclude the public and press from lawmakers’ “executive session” meetings, in February of 1974 adopted a landmark law that states in its preamble:
“The General Assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
The statute is known as the “Sunshine Law,” and passage marked a change in attitude from prior years. It also marked a rare case of legislative advocacy by the state’s newspapers, represented by the Tennessee Press Association, with the late Ralph Millett, then editor of the News Sentinel, and Sam Kennedy, then editor of the Columbia Daily Herald, as point men.
“We decided to take the initiative, something that, as a matter of policy, we did not do,” recalled Kennedy in an interview last week. Normally, he said, the TPA became active in the Legislature only in opposing bills considered bad, not pushing legislation considered good.
The full article, written as part of a News Sentinel series on the newspaper’s history over the past 125 years, is HERE.
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.
ERWIN, Tenn. (AP) — The Unicoi County Commission has voted against supporting a proposal that would allow county business to be conducted in private.
The 7-1 vote on Monday comes a month after a unanimous vote to draw up a resolution supporting changes to the state’s Sunshine Law, according to the Johnson City Press (http://bit.ly/tRyKW4).
The law forbids two or more officials on a local legislative body, such as a county commission, from meeting privately to deliberate on public business.
The Tennessee County Commissioners Association is promoting a change to allow closed-door talks as long as a quorum is not present.
Unicoi Commissioner Doug Bowman brought the proposal last month. He said the county would be better served by discussing matters such as property purchases and prospective industries out of public view.
— From Sullivan County:
BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Sullivan County commissioners decided Monday against a resolution that asked the General Assembly to loosen open meeting laws for county and city governments.
The commissioners approved the first reading of the ordinance last month. But according to the Bristol Herald Courier, several commissioners said Monday that people in the community opposed the idea (http://bit.ly/tefSXs). They said people were worried that the commissioners would meet behind closed doors.
The Tennessee County Commissioners Association has been pushing the effort. Commissioners in Williamson and Obion counties have approved similar resolutions. Rhea, Roane and Anderson commissioners voted against one.
The 37-year-old law, also known as “the sunshine 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.
The county commissioners group hopes to amend the 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 applies only to local governments. The General Assembly has enacted a statute allowing legislators to hold private discussions when there is less than a quorum of the body present.
Gov. Bill Haslam, former mayor of Knoxville, has said he opposes the change
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.
Writing in the subscription-only Tennessee Journal, Ed Cromer reminisces about the last effort to revise the state’s open meetings law – an attempt to strengthen it that failed – and reports on a developing move to soften its provisions. It appears the battle will be renewed in 2012, as the board of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association has voted to support a bill that would allow commissioners and members of other public boards to discuss issues in private so long as a quorum isn’t present.
But it isn’t clear yet how big a push will be made. The Tennessee Municipal League isn’t involved, and so far counties are not unified on the issue. Championing the proposal is Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who until last month was president of the county commissioners association. On Oct. 10, Williamson County commissioners voted 22-0 to adopt a resolution supporting the not-yet-drafted bill.
At least two other commissions, in Obion County and Lewis County, have adopted the resolution, Lewis by a 17-1 vote Monday night. And at least two have defeated it. In Rhea County, the vote last week was 7-2 against. One of the two members supporting it was Ronnie Raper, who succeeded Barnwell as TCCA president.
Tuesday, despite a positive recommendation from its legislative committee, the Anderson County Commission voted 12-4 against the resolution.
The Tennessee Press Association, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, and other groups will fight any attempt to weaken the open meetings law.
Commonly known as the sunshine law, the open meetings law requires that public notice be given of all meetings of public governing bodies — such as city councils and school boards — and that the meetings take place in public, with all votes cast publicly.
… State Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin), heeding his local commission’s 22-0 vote, is preparing a bill to provide that members of governing bodies may meet and talk in private without giving notice unless they constitute a quorum. However, he also plans to make it clear in the bill that parties to such non-public meetings may not make a decision or attempt to make one.