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Proposed Tenn. open-meetings changes could weaken law

By The Associated Press
11.13.07

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 law.

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 teeth.

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 meetings.

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 said.

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 this story.

"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.


Update
Tenn. open-meetings debate edges toward compromise
Legislative panel recommends that up to four members of an official body be allowed could meet in private as long as that number doesn't constitute a majority. 11.19.07

Related

Tenn. 'open' meetings increasingly closed

State ranks near bottom in effectiveness of its laws guaranteeing public access to official meetings. 12.03.05

Tenn. county violated open-meetings law, jury rules
In sweeping verdict, panel finds Knox County commissioners circumvented 'the intent, the spirit or the requirements' of Sunshine Law by holding private discussions before appointing new members. 10.03.07

Open meetings, open records: It’s the public’s business
By Gene Policinski Note to those who picked East Tennessee county officeholders by secret vote: Sunshine laws don't paralyze government, they make it accountable. 10.21.07

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