Renewed Bid Would Dilute Tennessee Open Meetings Law

ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press

NASHVILLE (AP) – A renewed push is under way to get Tennessee lawmakers to allow local official to hold more closed-door meetings.

Williamson County Commissioner Bob Barnwell, who also spearheaded a similar attempt last year, has written to local government colleagues around the state urging them to encourage state lawmakers to pass a bill to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn't present.

Current law forbids members of a local legislative body from meeting privately to deliberate on public business. It does not ban officials from speaking to each other during chance encounters or from having other conversations.

But Barnwell notes in the letter that the law does not apply to the General Assembly.

"The goal of this legislation is to make the Open Meetings Laws as consistent as possible for all elected officials whether state and local," he said.

Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, called the effort "misguided."

"It guts the essence of what Sunshine Law is all about, which is doing the public's business in public," he said.

TCOG is a nonprofit alliance of citizen, professional and media groups, including The Associated Press. The group is committed to promoting government transparency.

Flanagan noted that under the proposal, 11 of the Williamson County Commission's 24 members could meet behind closed doors.

"They could meet privately, deliberate and present the decision at the next meeting with little or no debate," he said. "And the public would have no idea what was going on."

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and the speakers of the House and Senate expressed reservations about last year's effort to change the law, and the bill was withdrawn early in the session.

Barnwell, who did not immediately return a message seeking comment, wrote in the letter that bills carried by Rep. Glen Casada and Sen. Jack Johnson, both Republicans from Williamson County, could be amended to include the changes to the open meetings act.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, got Casada to withdraw a similar measure last year, and Haslam said at the time that his previous experience as mayor of Knoxville gave him little reason to think that more secrecy in government was needed.

The governor said open meetings laws fostered better discussions at city council meetings and said changing the law would not be politically popular. "I don't think it's a winning strategy," he said.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said he opposes weakening what is known as the Sunshine Law, but has also been receptive to arguments that the current open meetings rules could be too onerous for local officials.

Sen. Ken Yager, the chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee that would handle any proposed changes, has been a vocal opponent of changing the law.

"Lack of transparency prevents the public from actively participating in government and from raising questions or expressing their opinions," the Harriman Republican said in the run-up to last year's legislation.

Efforts to get county commissions to endorse changing the law succeeded in three counties in 2011, but failed in at least five others before the bill was withdrawn in the Legislature.

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