Dyer Co. commission supports changing open meetings law
DYERSBURG (AP) — The Dyer County Commission wants to change the state’s open meetings law to allow up to three members of its panel to deliberate privately, something open-government advocates say would weaken the law.
The Dyer commission voted 18-1 on Tuesday to support the recommendation made in November by a legislative study panel tasked with suggesting changes to the state’s open government laws. The open government study committee recommended allowing up to three public officials to deliberate privately as long as that number isn’t a majority of whatever body they serve on.
“The ability to discuss issues, hopefully before they come before the full county commission for a vote, could persuade people instead of having meetings that last all night hashing things out,” said Commissioner Alan Burchfiel, who sponsored the resolution.
The Tennessee Open Meetings Act requires any deliberation about public business by any number of government officials to be publicized and discussed in public. It does not prohibit meetings among public officials for any purpose other than public business.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Director Frank Gibson said a better way to “hash out” complex issues is for the commission to create committees that can spend extra time researching and discussing those issues, as long as it’s done in public.
“It’s unfortunate that more secrecy is always the first response to situations as described in the Dyer County Commission,” Gibson said.
Commissioner Steve Walker recorded the lone vote against the measure, but only because he felt it may be too restrictive and not because he favored keeping the open meetings law as is.
“If we don’t pass it are we stuck where two people can’t talk to each other? … So you mean to tell me we’ve been breaking the law all these years?” Walker said.
Mayor Richard Hill acknowledged that commission members had broken the open meetings law in the past. The only consequences of breaking the law come when members of the public sue the governmental body accused of violating it.
Burchfiel said he hopes the commission’s action will pressure state lawmakers to change the law when they consider the open government study committee’s recommendations.
Burchfiel said he created the resolution at the request of Tennessee County Commissioners Association Executive Director David Connor, who served on the open government legislative study committee. Burchfiel is a board member of the county commissioners association.
Connor said he merely made a suggestion when Burchfiel asked him for one and felt supporting the recommendation of the study committee was appropriate because it represented a consensus opinion of representatives from government, media and advocates.
“Our association has not asked people on a statewide basis to create resolutions,” Connor said.
Published in The Messenger on 12.14.07