Bills affecting sunshine law, public notice headed to committee

A legislative proposal that would exempt from Tennessee’s sunshine law any meeting regarding school safety plans is headed for a state Senate committee and House subcommittee next week.

Also on the calendar next week is a bill that would require a newspaper to be designated by a local legislative body, such as a county commission or city council, as “a newspaper of general circulation” before that newspaper could be used to publish certain notices required by statute.

One bill would alter the state’s sunshine laws, and the other creates a new definition of “a newspaper of general circulation” as it relates to meeting standards for certain public notices.

The proposal to allow closed meetings on school safety plans (SB 2073 / HB  2217) comes out of Sumner County and is being carried in the Senate by Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, and in the House by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster.

The bills also include language to exempt from the Open Records Act “information, records and plans” related to “district-wide school safety plans or the building-level school safety plans” despite a records exemption for school security plans already in the law.

The House version is on the calendar for the House Education Subcommittee for Tuesday, March 4, and the Senate version is scheduled before the Senate Education Committee the next day.

The Tennessee Press Association and Tennessee Coalition for Open Government have offered an amendment that would strike the duplication already in the open records law, and add safeguards for the public making clear that no matters other than school security could be discussed in the closed meeting. TPA also proposed requiring a school district board to include on its agenda its plan to go into closed session, stating the purpose of the closed session and explaining to board members and any members of the public present that no other business will be discussed except the safety plans.

Designating a newspaper

Another bill alters requirements regarding public notices. As part of the sunshine law, governing bodies are required to give adequate notice to the public of upcoming meetings. Some governing bodies are statutorily required to publish notice of upcoming meetings or other legal notices in a “newspaper of general circulation.”

SB 2344 sponsored by state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and carried in the House by state Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet (HB 2379) would require that a local governing body sign off on a local newspaper before it could be regarded as meeting the legal requirements of carrying the notices.

The bill could put some newspapers that have carried notices of city council and county commission meetings for  years in the position of needing approval from those bodies to continue carrying the notices.

Some news organizations are concerned of setting up a situation in which local elected officials who may be unhappy with a local newspaper’s coverage or an editorial stance can effectively yank public notice listings and the revenue they provide.

The bill does recognize cases in which a judge or the state’s attorney general have already weighed into a decision of what constitutes a “newspaper of general circulation,” usually for a new publication or an older publication that wants to carry notices from another county. “A newspaper deemed to be a newspaper of general circulation prior to July 1, 2014, by either a ruling of a court of competent jurisdiction or of the attorney general and reporter of this state shall be recognized as such and need not be so designated by a local legislative body…” the bill says.

The bill is on the March 4 calendar of Senate Judiciary Committee.

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