The purpose of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act is laid out clearly and strongly in its first statement:
(a) The general assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.(T.C.A. § 8-44-101)
(b) This part shall not be construed to limit any of the rights and privileges contained in the Constitution of Tennessee, Article I, § 19.
The open meetings law, which consists of 10 parts in T.C.A § 8-44-101 though 111, covers:
- the definition of a governing body
- how meetings should be conducted
- how minutes should be recorded
- public notification about upcoming meetings, and
- the process for enforcing compliance.
The most contentious and controversial parts of the law reside in the second part — the heart of the law — that outlines who is a governing body and what constitutes a meeting. Judicial opinions have given more definition to those questions.
Courts have also provided guidance about the law’s requirement for adequate notice of meetings after citizens filed lawsuits complaining governing bodies had met without giving the public enough information beforehand.
Definition of a governing body
(a) All meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, except as provided by the Constitution of Tennessee.T.C.A. § 8-44-102(a)
After that declaration, the law provides this crucial definition of a governing body:
(b) (1) “Governing body” means:
(A) The members of any public body which consists of two (2) or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration and also means a private nonprofit community organization eligible to receive funds from the community services block grant program under 42 U.S.C. §§ 9901 – 9926. Any governing body so defined by this section shall remain so defined, notwithstanding the fact that such governing body may have designated itself as a negotiation committee for collective bargaining purposes, and strategy sessions of a governing body under such circumstances shall be open to the public at all times;…T.C.A. 8-44-102 (b)(1)(A)
The Tennessee Supreme Court looked at the legislative history of the statute in the 1976 case of Dorrier v. Dark and gave a more comprehensive definition:
“(T)he Legislature intended to include any board, commission, committee, agency, authority, or any other body, by whatever name, whose origin and authority may be traced to state, city, or county legislative action and whose members have authority to make decisions or recommendations on policy and administration affecting the conduct of the business of the people in the governmental sector.”Tennessee Supreme Court, Dorrier v. Dark (1976)
Here’s a simple way to distinguish between a body that falls under the law and one that does not.
A committee established by the mayor to recommend City Hall landscaping improvements to the city executive would not be subject to the sunshine law. The same committee created by and reporting to the City Council would fall under the law.
The Legislature exemption
The statute’s language “except as provided by the Constitution of Tennessee” took special significance after a 2001 decision by the state Court of Appeals in Mayhew vs. Wilder.
Before the case, the state legislature was presumed to fall under the sunshine law. But the court noted that the legislature does not trace its origins to any legislative action and cited two provisions of the state Constitution to conclude the law does not apply to the House and Senate.
Article II, Section 22, of the Tennessee Constitution says the doors of the General Assembly shall be open except when the “business shall be such as ought to be kept secret.” Article II, Section 12, lets each chamber “determine the rules of its proceedings.” And, the court said, one two-year session of the General Assembly cannot bind the next.
Though criticized in editorials for “exempting themselves” from the sunshine law, both houses of the General Assembly have had rules that say the doors can be closed only for state and national security matters and certain impeachment proceedings unless it’s a member being impeached.