Tennessee Sunshine Law holds no secrets

By Lee Roberts

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Nov. 1, 2012) — Legislators passed the Tennessee Open Meetings Act of 1974 declaring it the policy of the state “that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

The City Paper Editor Steve Cavendish works on the weekly publication in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 30, 2012. (Photo by Lee Roberts)
The City Paper Editor Steve Cavendish works on the weekly publication in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 30, 2012. (Photo by Lee Roberts)

Publicly known as the “Sunshine Law,” the act prohibits the state’s governing bodies from conducting “secret votes, or secret ballots, or secret roll calls.”

“We are lucky that Tennessee has decent Sunshine Law provisions and that, in Nashville, we don’t find many elected officials who go behind closed doors except when it falls within the parameters of state code,” said Steve Cavendish, editor of The City Paper, a tabloid with a 50,000 weekly circulation.

The City Paper employs both Metro and state reporters that cover government meetings, including those held by its boards, councils and committees.  Cavendish said the publication’s reporters require unfettered access to government proceedings to obtain important information for their stories.

“In many ways, the Tennessee Sunshine Act makes our jobs possible,” Cavendish said.  “A heavy percentage of what we cover relates to the institutions that govern the Nashville Area.  It has helped tremendously.”

In Tennessee, if two or more state officials meet together that have the “authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration,” the act requires public notification and the meeting to be open to the public. In addition, recorded minutes are also open for public inspection.

The City Paper Editor Steve Cavendish edits a story at his desk Oct. 30, 2012. (Photo by Lee Roberts)
The City Paper Editor Steve Cavendish edits a story at his desk Oct. 30, 2012. (Photo by Lee Roberts)

Cavendish said the act does allow some limited access such as executive sessions, and there are budgetary obstacles that affect his publication’s ability to obtain information.

“Our biggest difficulty is the cost of open record requests.  By statute, we can examine any records, but the labor costs associated with production of those records often make it prohibitive to obtain our own copies,” Cavendish said.

The act requires the state to educate and provide guidance and direction for various state agencies.  Nonetheless, grey areas occasionally arise that require additional clarification.

A recent example in 2010 involved State Rep. Gerald McCormick.  He wanted to know how the Open Meetings Act applied if a county commissioner contacted fellow commissioners for their support for appointment to mayor.

At the request of McCormick, the Office of the Attorney General for the State of Tennessee provided an opinion on the subject Dec. 30, 2010.

The opinion stated a belief that a court would find that a commissioner contacting fellow commissioners “to fill a vacancy in the office of county mayor does not constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act, as long as there is no decision to appoint or deliberation towards a decision to appoint such commissioner to fill the vacancy prior to a public meeting.”

The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel issued a report March 1, 2012 to the 107th General Assembly that indicated there were 1,266 inquiries regarding the Open Meetings Act.

Of the 1,266 inquiries, 597 came from citizens, 104 from the media, and 565 from the government. There were 38 complaints filed regarding alleged meeting violations.  The breakdown by topics showed 136 inquiries regarding fees, 30 regarding retention of records, 727 general issues regarding public records, 171 on access to law enforcement records, and 202 involving applicability of specific exemptions.

The office also reported 27 total media interviews, 12 public presentations, the release of four opinions, and one internet forum received approval.

The Tennessee Press Association provides resources and copies of the Tennessee Public Meetings Law, Tennessee Public Records Law and Tennessee Shield Law, along with other member services.

A Public Participation online resource is also available on the state of Tennessee’s website where the public can search for and browse meetings.

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