Electronic communication – Internet forums for governing bodies

The “Internet relay chat” was introduced by a state lawmaker from Knoxville in 2008 in the wake of the Knox County Commission sunshine lawsuit.  It allows a governing body to have electronic communication by means of an Internet forum with some specific conditions, including accommodating the public. 

It was proposed because some elected officials in Knox complained the judge’s decree had precluded any communication between members of elected bodies.

It started as a three-year pilot but was made permanent the next year with a requirement that any entity that chose to start such a “relay chat” had to develop a plan that must be then certified by the new Office of Open Records Counsel.

The most significant condition for allowing use of such “relay chat” says the government must provide “reasonable access” to a computer and the Internet “for members of the public to view the forum at the local public library, the building where the governing body meets or other public building.”

Only three counties – Blount, Loudon and Williamson – plus the City of Knoxville submitted plans to the OORC between 2009 and 2014. Knox County didn’t have to submit plans to operate its Internet chat; it was grandfathered in in 2009. Observers report that some use their forums regularly and others hardly ever.

Following is the statute:

(a)  A governing body may, but is not required to, allow electronic communication between members by means of a forum over the Internet only if the governing body:

(1)  Ensures that the forum through which the electronic communications are conducted is available to the public at all times other than that necessary for technical maintenance or unforeseen technical limitations;

(2)  Provides adequate public notice of the governing body’s intended use of the electronic communication forum;

(3)  Controls who may communicate through the forum;

(4)  Controls the archiving of the electronic communications to ensure that the electronic communications are publicly available for at least one (1) year after the date of the communication; provided, that access to the archived electronic communications is user-friendly for the public; and

(5)  Provides reasonable access for members of the public to view the forum at the local public library, the building where the governing body meets or other public building.

(b)  Electronic communications posted to a forum shall not substitute for decision making by the governing body in a meeting held in accordance with this part. Communications between members of a governing body posted to a forum complying with this section shall be deemed to be in compliance with the open meetings laws compiled in this part.

(c)  Prior to a governing body initially utilizing a forum to allow electronic communications by its members that meets the requirements of this section, including the public notice required in subsection (a), the governing body shall file a plan with the office of open records counsel. The plan shall describe how the governing body will ensure compliance with subsection (a). Within thirty (30) days of receipt of the plan, the office of open records counsel shall acknowledge receipt of the plan and shall report whether or not the plan and the proposed actions comply with subsection (a). If the office determines that compliance with subsection (a) has not been met, the office shall provide written comments regarding the plan to the governing body. Until such time as the governing body complies with the written comments provided by the office and the office issues a report of compliance, the governing body shall not be allowed to establish or utilize such forum. This subsection (c) shall not apply to any governing body that had established a forum pursuant to this section prior to May 7, 2009.

(d)  No member participating in an electronic communication pursuant to this section is deemed to be eligible for per diem for such participation.

(e)  As used in this section, “governing body” means the elected governing body of a county, city, metropolitan form of government or school board.

T.C.A. § 8-44-109