The legislative committee organized to strengthen the Open Meetings laws have instead gone in the opposite direction. They approved a plan to increase the number of elected officials who can meet, debate and create public policy away from any public view or oversight.
The committee members who voted to increase how many officials can meet secretly to conduct business include state legislators, the new school board chief for the state, some attorneys, a Knox Co. Commissioner and a newspaper publisher. A full list of those who voted for and against this terrible failure of open government is here.
So representatives of city, county, and state government and public schools and even some in the news business have made a clear declaration of how they think - that there is no need for public meetings at all.
The state committee will meet again in mid-November. I urge you to contact your state representatives and tell them this committee has failed and their decisions are bad for Tennessee.
Link to State Representatives and State Senators emails.
The chairman of the Open Government committee, Democrat Ulysses Jones, has issued a statement defending the action suggested by his committee (via Volunteer Voters):
"I believe this recommendation is a necessary change in order to allow elected officials to adequately do their jobs,” said Jones. “Elected leaders cannot be effective legislators if they are afraid of talking policy and issue with each other for fear of lawsuit.”
Current Tennessee Law (T.C.A. 8-44-102) states that when two or more “members, with the authority to make decisions for recommendations to a public body” are together and discussing policy, that the public has the right to be present. Under the approved recommendation, two or more members would be replaced with a “quorum of members.”
“Thirty-seven other states currently use the quorum process to define meetings as public and open,” said Jones. “What we have now is far more confusing, but with this change the process of having open meetings can be much more black and white.”
My response to his argument is this: when two or more members of the same governing body are discussing policy, they are making decisions and talking about issues which directly affect the public. Such discussions need to be held in a public forum, and part of the public record. And what is it in the current law quoted above that is 'confusing' to elected officials?