Applying the sunshine law – what the Attorney General said

The Dyersburg State Gazette published a story recently about our state’s sunshine laws. The story was about two county commissioners who met with the principal and PTO representative at an elementary school to clarify information about its future. The paper was told about the meeting about 30 minutes before.

The State Gazette’s story probes whether the meeting violated the state’s sunshine laws. In addition to quoting the law about meetings between two or more members of a public body, the newspaper also quoted a 2012 Attorney General opinion that shed light on the sometimes thorny issue of what triggers the Open Meetings Act. From the State Gazette:

“Although exceptions are made in the case of litigation and chance encounters, on June 6, 2012 Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper drafted an opinion in response to the question whether elected officials could share a meal together or casually discuss county or city business as long as the discussions were for informational purposes and not to reach a decision.

“That opinion reads as follows:

‘The private discussion of public business at a meal by any number of members of a governing body would certainly present the potential issue of whether a chance meeting, or informal assemblage, was used to decide or deliberate public business in circumvention of the Open Meetings Act. Whether a violation occurred would depend upon what was said and what transpired during the meeting. Thus, while the case law does not lend itself to hard and fast rules because the decisions are so fact dependent, some cautious advice readily appears. While two or more members may share a meal together in which public business is discussed, such discussion should not constitute deliberations, which term 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.’ “

 Meanwhile, over in Hawkins County, a citizen continues to press her school board officials to publicize  upcoming “community” meetings about the search for a new schools director. So far, no notice has been published, even on the school district’s website. Concerned about the public’s awareness about the event, and compliance with the state’s sunshine laws, she wrote Randall G. Bennett, deputy executive director and general counsel with the Tennessee School Board Association, with which the board has contracted. She received this email back :

“These meetings are not meetings of the Board of Education.  In fact, I specifically asked the Board to not attend any meetings but the Friday luncheon meeting which includes members of the business community and county commission.

Since these are not meetings of the Board it is my opinion that notice is not required under the Open Meetings Act or Board Policy.

I have forwarded your concerns to Hawkins County Schools.”




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