Monday, December 08, 2014

December 8, 2014 Significant Open Meetings Act Hearing in Greene County Chancery Court Today

Tennessee has an Open Meetings Law which requires that governmental bodies meet and deliberate and vote in public.

Today, there is a hearing in Greene County before Chancellor Doug Jenkins concerning that law.
The issue is whether the public has a right to actually "hear" the discussion at a public meeting.

The current case results from an Industrial Board meeting in Greene County, TN where most of the public in attendance could not hear the discussion and debate because most of the Industrial Board members had their backs to the audience, were speaking softly, and had no microphones.

In a 2012 Tennessee Attorney General's opinion the following was stated:


2.a. Does the Tennessee Open Meetings Act, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 8-44-101
to -111, require a county commission meeting to be held in any particular type of space or


2.a. Tennessee courts have not addressed this specific issue. Under the Open Meetings
Act, county commission meetings are public meetings and must be open to the public at all
times. For this reason, county commission meetings should be held in a facility that can
accommodate a public audience reasonably expected to attend. The audience should be able to
hear the proceedings. [Emphasis added]

If Chancellor Jenkins holds that the state's open meetings law just means a citizen has the right to attend and "see" the meeting but no right to "hear" the discussions and deliberations, current Open Meetings Act will have been gutted.

At that point, the Legislature may as well repeal the Open Meetings Act or come back in January and immediately amend the Open Meetings Act to make it clear that an "Open Meeting" means one that the public can see AND hear.

Here is a Knox N-S article about today's hearing and what happened at the Greene County Industrial Development Board to lead up to today's hearing:

Pipeline meeting at crux of battle

Groups say interpretation of law absurd

By Hugh G. Willett

Special to the News Sentinel

Tennessee journalists and open government advocates are expressing concern that the outcome of an open meetings trial scheduled to begin next week in Greene County could reduce citizen access to public meetings.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the East Tennessee Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists on Wednesday issued a joint statement of concern about efforts to interpret the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.

The lawsuit, brought by a group of Greene County residents, seeks to void actions taken by the local industrial development board that enabled a controversial 12-mile pipeline that would take water from the Nolichucky River for use by the US Nitrogen industrial chemical plant before returning the treated water to the river.

The issue arose after a July 18 meeting of the Greene County Industrial Development Board during which a local resident named Eddie Overholt was ejected from the meeting and arrested after asking the members of board to speak up.

Residents later filed 59 complaints with the state Office of Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge. She agreed the meeting was probably illegal.

The Industrial Development Board of Greeneville, Greene County and US Nitrogen have filed a motion to dismiss the suit on the premise that the Tennessee Open Meetings Act does not require citizens be able to hear proceedings at a public meeting, only that a governing body give citizens an opportunity to be present .

Deborah Fisher, executive director of TCOG, described the motion to dismiss as absurd. TCOG and ETSPJ believe such a narrow interpretation would make a mockery of the state’s Open Meetings Act, also known as the sunshine law, and allow or even encourage absurd scenarios where a governing body could hold a public meeting but prevent attendees from hearing what they say, she said.

Fisher said the IDB had the option to redo the meeting to come into compliance with the law but chose not to do so within the required time frame.

Greene County resident Don Bible is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He believes the July 18 meeting marked a turning point in public opinion.

­I believe that several members of that board would now like to have the opportunity to redo that whole event. I think that most of the members of that board now realize that by their actions they burned a lot of bridges that day, he said.

Representatives of the Greene County Industrial Development Board did not respond to requests for comment.

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