NASHVILLE — What started as a legislative effort to strengthen the law that
prevents local government officials from meeting in private could end up
weakening the law instead.
Tennessee's Sunshine Law currently prohibits local government officials from meeting behind
closed doors to conduct public business, but there is no penalty for breaking
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, whose members include the
state's major daily newspapers and the Associated Press, conducted a survey and
found the law was frequently violated.
So the coalition proposed a bill last year that would have clarified when
government officials could and could not meet in private and also would have
imposed a penalty of $50 plus court costs.
But local government officials and some state lawmakers thought the bill was
unfair and tried to kill it. In a compromise, lawmakers formed a committee to
study changes to the state's open-government laws.
Last month a subcommittee from that group voted 7-2 to make it legal for two
or more members of a panel to deliberate in private as long as a quorum of the
body is not present. A quorum is the number of members required for a panel to
legally conduct business.
Supporters of the proposed change say it's not meant to circumvent
public-meetings laws, but instead to let a few members of a public body discuss
important issues without having to call a public meeting. Detractors worry the
change would allow private dealmaking.
State Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, is one of those who voted in favor of
the change. He said the current law was too restrictive and made it difficult
for newly elected members to learn about policy issues. The quorum rule makes
sense, Jones said, and is the law in many states.
"If what I'm proposing is backroom dealing, I guess 37 other states are doing
backroom dealing," he said.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Director Frank Gibson said the
proposed change would invite abuse. On the 40-member Metro Nashville Council,
where 27 members form a quorum, 26 members of that body could meet in private to
discuss public business.
"Other states with the quorum standard have, in many cases, tight
restrictions on what can happen," he said. That includes banning what he called
"serial meetings" in which members meet several times in overlapping small
groups to make decisions in private without violating the letter of the law.
Although the proposed change weakens the law in the sense that it would allow
some public business to go on behind closed doors, it also gives it some
Violations would be punishable with a fine of up to half a guilty member's
monthly government salary, with a cap of $1,000. Current law imposes no
penalties for violating the law, but courts can void decisions made in secret
Even though groups like the Tennessee Municipal League, which represent local
government officials, are sponsoring the change to a quorum standard, not all
the officials they represent support it.
In Knoxville last week, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution
opposing any change that would weaken the open-meetings law.
Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan is the president-elect of the Tennessee Municipal
League. But speaking as mayor of Oak Ridge, and not for the league, he said he
was concerned the quorum standard would lead to dysfunctional government.
"It sets us up for a group of people to form a clique, a power group," he
But he also said the current law needed to be changed because officials are
paranoid about giving the appearance of violating the law.
"It appears that even if you meet someone in a grocery store — you could be
talking about your son's football team — you could be challenged," he said.
"Somewhere there's a middle ground."
It has always been legal for fellow city council members to talk about
football, or the weather, or church, or nearly anything they want — as long as
they don't discuss public business in private.
Neither side seems likely to compromise. Jones said there were some hard
feelings among supporters of the change who feel they were vilified in the
press. Current Municipal League officials and Tennessee Tribune Publisher
Rosetta Miller Perry, who voted for the change, refused to be interviewed for
"It is because the newspaper coalition figured they'd just come in and write
the law the way they wanted and when people disagreed ... you know, they've got
the ink," Jones said.
The subcommittee will discuss further changes to the law today. The full
committee meets to vote on the proposed changes on Nov. 27 and 28.