Governor signs executive order on electronic local government meetings

By Updated: March 20, 2020 8:56 PM CT | Published: March 20, 2020 3:04 PM CT

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Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order Friday to put electronic government meetings rules in place after legislation fell apart in the waning hours of the General Assembly session.

He confirmed Friday, March 20, he was consulting with Attorney General Herbert Slatery and Comptroller Justin Wilson to “construct” the order giving city councils and other local government entities the right to hold electronic meetings without the media and public as the coronavirus pandemic grips the state and nation.


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“We need to provide open government and at the same time provide logistics for these governments to meet in the midst of this crisis so they don’t gather in rooms that create a public health hazard,” Lee said.

The order states: “All governing body meetings conducted by electronic means under this order shall remain open and accessible to public attendance by electronic means, as follows: Each governing body must make reasonable efforts to ensure that the public access to the meeting via electronic means is live access, but if the governing body cannot provide such live public access despite reasonable efforts, the governing body must make a clear audio or video recording of the meeting available to the public as soon as practicable following the meeting, and in no event more than two business days after the meeting.”

The order does not change quorum, meeting notice or voting requirements, and governing bodies are “urged” to give notice of the meeting agenda and methods for public access.

In response, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher pointed out the order expires in May and can be “revisited” if necessary.

“The most important thing is that we now have an executive order from the governor that has important safeguards for public transparency and allows governing bodies to operate,” Fisher said.

She added the General Assembly appears to have run out of time to pass legislation as the COVID-19 spread.

The governor also said Friday he is forming an economic task force within his administration to consider ideas for economic relief in the coming months.


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The Republican-controlled House rejected legislation Thursday night that would have given restaurants and bars the ability to retain sales taxes and liquor-by-the-drink taxes for three months to help them survive the crisis.

“Obviously, the Legislature weighed that and determined that that was not the best way to go. But there are a lot of alternatives that we can consider,” Lee said.

State Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat who tried to pass the legislation Thursday night, argued the state couldn’t afford to wait or many restaurants and bars would go out of business.

Lee said, though, “We make decisions every hour about what we’re going to do for individuals and for businesses and for organizations across the state. This state government is moving in rapid speed, just like the federal government is.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, however, scoffed at the notion of giving restaurants such a break, saying he isn’t sure what it helps “other than people who want to go drink for less money than they were.”

Meanwhile, the governor’s move on electronic local government meetings became necessary after Senate and House versions of the legislation failed to mesh at the tail end of Thursday night’s session. The Legislature sped through passage of a $39.8 billion budget in a 14-hour work day so members could get out of Nashville as COVID-19 spread.


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Separate versions of the legislation had been introduced  Wednesday, and the Senate’s differed in that it allowed such meetings only during a state of emergency declared by the governor, such as the current one spurred by the coronavirus.

The Senate version also required local governments to make a reasonable effort to hold meetings electronically, such as by video, social media or telephone conference call, if they didn’t have the means.

One of the sticking points dealt with whether local governments should take up only essential matters or items that could be postponed.

The House version would have allowed local governments to determine when they needed to hold meetings electronically and didn’t require them to hold live meetings if they didn’t have the electronic means, such as a conference call.

Under the House version, it could simply record the meeting and make it available to the public within 48 hours.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government favored the Senate version because it required governments to make a greater effort to hold live, electronic meetings.

Both bills called for ending the open meetings exception in February 2021.

Members of the local entity also would have been able to call in and participate in the meetings, and in some cases, the public would have been able to do the same thing.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said Friday the legislation is not dead and that it could be taken up again in June when lawmakers hope to return to the State Capitol. He noted the Legislature’s main effort Thursday was passing a budget before lawmakers left Nashville, which didn’t leave time to work out differences.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who sponsored the initial placeholder bill for the legislation, blamed the Coalition for Open Government for trying to play the House and Senate against each other to get what it wanted.

Reached for comment Friday, TCOG’s Fisher said she favored the Senate version even though the House came up with an amendment that required live feeds. Fisher supported the Senate bill because it provided more “safeguards” for holding open meetings and noted she simply “advocated” the organization’s position.

“We were just doing our job to try to inform the public and lawmakers which amendment we thought had the better safeguards,” Fisher said.

TCOG reached out to governments the previous week asking for help in working on similar legislation before finding out about a new bill Tuesday morning, she added.

In light of Lee’s plan to issue an executive order, TCOG posted a list of safeguards on its website at https://tcog.info/.

Sexton said his office consulted with TCOG, editors, cities and counties as it tried to propose the legislation. But in looking at its legislative “path,” Sexton said House leaders were looking at options, including an executive order by the governor. Asked by a reporter why he wanted to defer to the executive branch, Sexton said, “It happens all the time. You just don’t see it.”

Topics

Bill Lee Randy McNally Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Cameron Sexton
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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