From AP: Open Records Counsel says transparency panel exempt from sunshine law

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press

A panel of experts assembled to offer advice on transparency issues is not subject to the state’s open meetings law. At least that’s the opinion of Ann Butterworth, who heads the Comptroller’s Office of Open Records Counsel.

She made the finding in response to an email activist Ken Jakes’ request for more information about a recent teleconference held by the 14-member Advisory Committee on Open Government.

“Is that not ironic that the very office that holds the responsibility of seeing that the citizens have access is involved in blocking access?” Jakes said.

Jakes wanted to know more about the school board association’s representative on the panel urging support of legislation seeking to allow agencies to charge for records searches taking longer than an hour. Current law allows charges for copies, but not for the time spent collecting and redacting documents.

Butterworth said the panel doesn’t fall under open meetings laws because it “is not a governing body.”

State law says “any public body which consists of two or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration” falls under the open meetings requirements, which include bans on secret deliberations and notice guidelines.

The advisory panel is next scheduled to meet Monday afternoon, but has posted no meeting notice on its website.

John Dunn, a spokesman for Comptroller Justin Wilson, said in email that the advisory panel is exempt from the open meetings law because it does not require a quorum to meet and has “no authority to make decisions or recommendations.”

Wilson’s spokesman described the panel’s role as being a “resource” to Butterworth.

That stands in contrast with an October press release in which the comptroller touted the appointment of new members to the panel who he said he would “join with our Open Records Counsel to ensure Tennessee citizens have access to public records and open meetings.”

“Open government is a vital component to any democracy,” Wilson said at the time.

WPLN-FM reporter Blake Farmer, who serves as the Society for Professional Journalists’ representative on the panel, called it “a little crazy” for the Advisory Council on Open Government not to follow sunshine laws even if it doesn’t technically fall under their requirements.

“I don’t think there’s anything that a little bit of sunshine would hurt,” Farmer said. “If nothing else, it would set a good example for the rest of the state government and local government.”

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the lack of public notice for the panel’s meetings is an unwelcome departure from past practices under Butterworth’s predecessor.

“Public notice about the meetings was not an issue until the school board association started pushing their bill in the middle of a legislative session to this group to try to get them to endorse it,” Fisher said in an email.

“We would like the meetings to be announced and open so people could attend if they want and hear what’s discussed,” she said.

(TCOG NOTE: This story has printed in The Tennessean, and was reprinted here with permission from Associated Press.)

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