NASHVILLE — Local officials should have more leeway to conduct government business in private than is currently allowed under Tennessee’s open government laws, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said.
Although the Blountville Republican told reporters this week that he’s against weakening what is known as the state’s Sunshine Law, he said he thinks city or county officials should be allowed to hold some discussions outside of official meetings.
The law prohibits local elected officials from holding private deliberations on public affairs.
“I am for open government — I think I prove that every day,” Ramsey said. “But there’s got to be some kind of little something somewhere to allow people to talk without the fear that they’re going to be prosecuted.”
Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, said fears of being charged are unfounded.
“No one has ever been prosecuted under this law because there are no criminal or civil penalties,” he said. “But some decisions made in violation of the law have been challenged and set aside.”
The state’s 37-year-old law on open meetings doesn’t ban officials from speaking to each other during chance encounters, tours or having other conversations — as long as they are not deliberating on a pending issue.
“That word ‘deliberating’ has been the problem,” David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association, said in a recent interview. “There are people who take a very strict interpretation, that any sharing of information could violate the law.”
Connor’s association wants the law changed to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn’t present.
“We just want to open up avenues for sharing information between meetings,” Connor said.
Gibson noted that the association is calling for more than just information sharing.
“It would allow in some places up to two-thirds of members of an elected body to meet without telling anyone they’re meeting,” said Gibson, the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, of which The Associated Press is a member.
Resolutions calling for changes to the open meetings act have been approved by commissioners in Obion, Lewis, Tipton and Williamson counties, while similar measures have failed in Anderson, Cannon, Rhea and Roane counties.
Several other counties are considering the resolution, and Sullivan, Ramsey’s home county, is set to vote on it Monday.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, a former mayor of Knoxville, has said he opposes changes to the open meetings law.
Decisions made in violation of open meetings rules can be overturned in court, but there are no other penalties on the books.
Ramsey blamed the news media for causing local officials to fear being sued if they are spotted speaking to each other outside official meetings, such as over breakfast at a local diner to discuss the repair of a pothole.
“They are so scared of their shadow, because the press has put them in that position,” Ramsey said.
Gibson said those fears are largely unfounded.
“That would not be a violation of a law, unless there was a proposal pending and deliberations occurred in private,” he said. “There are a lot of urban legends about this law.”
Ramsey said he hasn’t seen any legislation appear on the matter, and didn’t say which specific changes he’d agree to.
“I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t,” he said. “But any time you even talk about moving from here to here on the issue, the press goes berserk.”