AG opinion allays lawmaker's open meetings concern

Friday, June 15, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 24

NASHVILLE (AP) — A state lawmaker says a recent legal opinion from the state's attorney general has soothed concerns about Tennessee's open meetings law.

Republican Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport said he requested the opinion to clarify that local government officials can meet privately over a meal, as long as they don't decide public business.

"My county commissioners were concerned they couldn't even go to lunch together, and I told them I don't think that's the intent," Shipley said. "So essentially that's what I asked the AG, and he said: No, of course they can go to lunch together."

Attorney General Bob Cooper cautioned in the opinion that while officials can share meals, they must avoid deliberating about official matters, which "has been defined to mean to 'examine and consult in order to form an opinion,' or to 'weigh arguments for and against a proposed course of action.'"

The Tennessee County Commissioners Association during this year's legislative session sought to have the state's open meetings law changed to allow private meetings among officials as long as a quorum isn't present.

Gov. Bill Haslam and fellow Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville quickly came out against the proposal, but Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey was more receptive to concerns about the existing law that bans any number of local officials from deciding government business behind closed doors.

"It's the same old question — it's just according to what the press decides is deliberating," Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in an interview at the legislative office complex. "There's no definition in the law about what deliberations are.

"Does discussing a pothole in a county road and deciding that we want to vote on that deliberating?"

Ramsey said the attorney general's opinion takes steps toward clarifying the law, but he still considers the rules to be open to interpretation.

"I still feel the law is very vague, but I don't think we're ever going to change anything," he said.

The law enacted in 1974 as part of the post-Watergate push for great government transparency 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.

Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, said the opinion reflects "what the law has been all along."

"If they use breakfast or lunch at Cracker Barrel to deliberate or decide business, then that's a violation," he said. "But there's nothing in the law that says they can't talk to each other or socialize."

Gibson said the legal burden remains on someone challenging violations "to prove that that those chance meetings were used to get around the law."

Shipley said he was pleased that the opinion meshed with his interpretation of the law.

"If I had heard something to the contrary, if the AG had said, 'Oh no, they can't be in the bathroom at the same time,' I would have carried legislation to carry that load a little bit," he said.