Letter to the Editor: SPJ opposes Open Meeting bill

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The following is a letter to the editor from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists. As with any letter to the editor, editorial or column that Hard Knox Wire may run, we are printing it in the hopes of stirring public discourse. Hard Knox Wire stands by the concerns of the East Tennessee SPJ and opposes the Wright-Briggs bill.

To the Editor:

The East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists opposes a bill sponsored by two Knoxville lawmakers, Rep.  David Wright and Sen. Richard Briggs, that would create yet another exemption to the state Open Meetings Act.

The bill, apparently introduced at the request of the Knox County Commission, would allow almost half the members of a county legislative body to participate in meetings by telephone or other electronic means. For Knox County, this would mean four of the nine commissioners; for Davidson Metro Council with 40 members, 19 of them could conceivably participate by telephone.

The rationale for the bill is laudable in that so long as a quorum is physically present in a single location, it permits an otherwise absent member to attend and represent constituents. Acceptable reasons for absence are family or medical emergencies, military service or out-of- the-county work.

Its shortcoming, however, is the total lack of public accommodation. As currently drafted, this bill would be an exception to a section of Tennessee law that permits such electronic participation so long as all conversation is audible to the public, each member can simultaneously hear and speak to each other during the meeting and all votes are taken by roll call.

The requirements in the existing Tennessee law are similar to those in the governor’s emergency executive order for public meetings during the pandemic, but the Briggs-Wright bill would incorporate the convenience of the pandemic order for government officials without any of the public safeguards.

Tennessee school boards received an exemption in 2012 for electronic participation, but whether by happenstance or by local rule, the Knox County School Board has never had more than one member participate electronically at the same time. So, the public has not faced the obstacle of determining who is speaking or how members participating by telephone voted.

The exemption to existing law for school boards may have begun a slippery slope for multiple state governing bodies to carve out a permanent exemption in the state Open Meetings Act.

ETSPJ asks that lawmakers Briggs and Wright withdraw their bill or else amend it so that it incorporates public accommodations similar to those in the existing state law and the governor’s executive order for meetings during the pandemic.

–  East Tennessee Society  of Professional Journalists

Published March 15, 2021