Panel supports changes in open meetings laws
NASHVILLE (AP) — A panel tasked with improving the state’s open meetings laws has recommended that more government business be allowed to be discussed behind closed doors.
The subcommittee voted 7-2 on Tuesday to call for a change in what the law defines as a meeting. Currently, any policy discussion between two or more members of a local government panel falls under open meeting rules and the public should be notified.
The panel wants to change that standard to allow deliberations as long as fewer than a majority, or quorum, of members of the entire body are present. The law applies to public bodies like schools boards and city and county councils, but the General Assembly is exempt.
Violations would be punishable with up to half of 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.
The proposed change “guts the law unless they make some of the other improvements that we suggested,” said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The Associated Press is a member of the coalition.
The panel adjourned after lengthy discussions Tuesday without taking up several proposals by open government advocates. It is set to reconvene on Nov. 13, and all changes would have to be approved by the full committee that is scheduled to meet Nov. 27 to complete recommendations to present to the Legislature next year.
A judge last month threw a dozen elected officials in Knoxville out of their jobs because they were hand-picked behind closed doors. The Knoxville News Sentinel and a citizens group had sued the Knox County Commission, alleging it violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it filled vacancies for eight commissioners and four countywide officers, including the sheriff.
Knox County Law Director John Owings, who is on the open government panel, acknowledged that the proposed changes to open meetings rules likely would not have changed the outcome of the Knoxville case.
But the proposals would still be an improvement for local officials, he said.
“That would certainly be creating more clarity,” said Owings. “Commissioners need to know what conduct is in violation of the act.”
Tammy Ward, who drove six hours from Elizabethton to attend the meeting, was frustrated by the result.
“They’re down here trying to shut us out of our government. I wish they’d just apply some common sense,” said Ward, 38, who helped lead an effort to oust school board members after they held secret meetings.
“It feels like a slap in the face,” she said.
Published in The Messenger 10.25.07