Most people have heard of Tennessee’s “Sunshine law” — but do you really know what it means and how it actually protects the citizens of our community?
The Sunshine law is just part of the Tennessee Open Government Statutes, which attempt to balance the need of the public’s right to know what government is doing with that of the need of the members of governing bodies to be able to deliberate and reach the best decisions.
Tennessee’s Sunshine law applies to members of governing bodies only — not to the executive branch (the governor’s office) or to the judicial branch (the courts). There’s even controversy over whether it applies to the legislature itself. Examples of public bodies the law does apply to include county commission, city council, school board, board of directors of a utility district, board of directors of an authority or any other county or municipal board or commission.
The law says that any meeting is open when it consists of two or more members of a governing body empowered to deliberate toward a decision or a group making recommendations to a governing body. What that means in simpler terms: The county commission meeting is an open meeting, and any meeting of two or more commissioners — at any time, including lunch — meets the Sunshine law, unless the commissioners can cite a legal exception to the law.
The law also means that committees, subcommittees, groups or whatever they are called are appointed by the government body to make recommendations to that government body, so that committee’s meetings are also subject to the Sunshine law.
The law does, however, include a clause that says two or more members of such bodies may have “chance meetings” that are not covered by the Sunshine law. If two city council members run into each other at the store and start talking about an upcoming resolution, they haven’t done anything illegal — even though they would probably better serve the citizens they represent if they reserved the discussion for the next public meeting.
Regarding “chance meetings,” the law states, “No such chance meetings, informal assemblages, or electronic communication shall be used to decide or deliberate public business in circumvention of the spirit or requirements of this part.”
Think about the implications of that small section of state law, T.C.A. § 8-44-102(c) — two commissioners or city council members emailing each other and deliberating about upcoming business is plainly a violation of the law. John Doe and Jane Smith, both school board members, plan a lunch to discuss an upcoming agenda item — that’s a violation of the law.
The Sunshine law also requires adequate public notice of meetings. The Tennessee Court of Appeals outlined the following three-part test for “adequate public notice” in a 1999 decision. 1) Notice must be posted in a location where a member of the community could become aware of such notice; 2) The contents of the notice must reasonably describe the purpose of the meeting or the action proposed to be taken; and 3) Notice must be posted at a time sufficiently in advance of the actual meeting in order to give citizens both an opportunity to become aware of and to attend the meeting.
Recently, the hospital board of directors moved their meeting location for a joint “educational session” with the county commission. They say they posted notices in five places, not including our newspaper. However, it is our belief, along with the attorney for the Tennessee Press Association, that was not adequate public notice. We challenged the change of location. No action took place during the meeting, so we did not challenge them further.
There are exceptions to the Sunshine Law, and the one heard most is “executive sessions.” Nonpublic sessions may be held to discuss the following: Public records exempted from public access or inspection; litigation; audits or investigations; information protected by federal law and reports of suspected illegal, improper, wasteful or fraudulent activity.
During an executive session, minutes must be kept and it must be held at the end of the public meeting. Although the topic may be discussed during the session, any action must be taken in a public meeting.
According to the law, if a meeting is held in violation of the act, any action taken is void.
Our job at the Claiborne Progress is to inform the public of what is going on in our community. Unfortunately, many meetings we attend are so short we have no doubt that the business has been discussed beforehand and decisions were made before the public meeting convened.
We are closely watching local governmental bodies and their members. And, we plan to keep watch in order to protect the public’s right to know what is going on in government. Transparency in government is essential.