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VOL. 122 | NO. 219 | Friday, November 16, 2007

Lawmakers To Weigh in On Open Meetings

By Andy Meek

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A committee formed by Tennessee state lawmakers to suggest changes to the state's open meetings law will vote on several proposals Nov. 27 and 28. Revisions to the law that emerge from the two-day session then will be presented to the full state legislature in January.

But even though the group's final recommendations won't be made until later this month, the state legislator who recently proposed loosening some of the law's restrictions already is thinking ahead to January. That's when the legislature goes back into regular session.

And during that new legislative session is when Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, may introduce a bill to change the open meetings law - regardless of what the study committee decides.

Jones wants to revise Tennessee's so-called Sunshine Law so members of local government boards may meet in private as long as a quorum isn't present. A quorum is the number of members required for a body to conduct business legally.

The study committee that convenes later this month may or may not agree, but whatever proposals the group supports ultimately will only be suggestions.

No quorum equals no meeting?

Thus, Jones said he's already thinking about putting forward a bill after the state legislature reconvenes that would be an official step toward transforming the law. He said he believes the law's current language is too restrictive.

He said the current legislation would prohibit newly elected members of the Memphis City Council who won office last month from meeting in private with current longtime council members to learn about the job.

Using the council as an example, Jones' proposed change would mean up to six members of that 13-member body could discuss issues in private without the obligation to treat the gathering as an official public meeting.

"One thing that I have learned about this - and I'm glad newspaper folks are writing about it - is you all don't understand the law," Jones said. "A lot of your colleagues do not understand the law. To me, we need to improve the law. It's antiquated, and folks have got to talk to each other.

"Just because two or three people get together and talk about the issues, they can't sit down and make a decision for the majority of a council that has 13 members."

Clarifying the situation

Another Tennessee state lawmaker said this week he, too, plans to introduce a bill aimed at making changes to the open meetings law.

After meeting with a group of Knox County residents who brought several concerns to him about what they claim are weaknesses in the law, state Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, said the bill he intends to file would clarify some of the terms in the open meetings law.

Others have agreed there's room for improvement.

"We have proposed some changes to improve, for example, what 'adequate notice' would be," said Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. "Right now the law just says adequate public notice shall be given, but it doesn't explain what adequate notice should be."

A subcommittee of the panel that will vote on recommended changes to the open meetings law met earlier this month and voted in favor of the changes Jones supports. When that subcommittee met again Tuesday, however, the group backed away somewhat from the proposal they previously had agreed to, which is that members of a government body can meet in private as long as a quorum is not present.

If it's good enough for them ...

In its meeting this week, the subcommittee decided to alter that suggestion. The group's proposal is now that up to four members of a government body can meet in private as long as they don't constitute a majority of the body they belong to.

"Everybody's been attacking these things, saying this is going to lead to backroom tactics," Jones said, "even though 37 other states already do what I propose we do. If there's a fear of these backroom deals, why is it good enough for two-thirds of the other states?"

Open meeting advocates fear, however, that loopholes will abound if that proposed change goes through.

"There's nothing in the language now that would prevent (the small group) from deliberating, discussing something informally, and then going together into a public meeting and picking up one more vote to support whatever came out of the private meeting and then have that become the law," Gibson said.

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