Governing bodies across Tennessee are entering into a week of meetings and business regarding the COVID-19 emergency with a new challenge.
They are allowed by the Governor’s Executive Order 16 to meet electronically, so long as they provide electronic access to the public.
TCOG is getting reports of various approaches. The Knoxville City Council, for example, plans to meet today using Zoom, where all members of the Council can connect from home with their computer audio and video. They haven’t yet figured out how to do live public comment, so for now, the city council is asking people to email their representatives on the council with that.
But how is it working in more rural parts of the state?
In Centerville, the Hickman County Commissioners decided to hold their Monday night meeting in person, but not allow the public into the meeting because of the coronavirus threat. They provided a live video feed through their Facebook page, and posted the video to their website the next morning.
“Folks spent a lot of time getting the feed up and working right,” Mayor Mark Bentley said at the first of the video. “If we have problems, we ask that you give us some mercy.”
Brad Martin, the editor of the Hickman County Times, was concerned that the 21 commissioners would be meeting physically, without the public. The Executive Order states that the provisions of the Open Meetings Act can be suspended to the extent necessary when the governing body determines it must meet electronically. Here, the governing body was meeting physically.
The governor’s order states that open meetings act provisions are suspended “to the extent necessary to allow a governing body…to meet and conduct its essential business by electronic means, rather than being required to gather a quorum of members physically present at the same location, if the governing body determines that meeting electronically is necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans in light of the COVID-19 outbreak…” provided they meet certain requirements for making the electronic meeting available to the public.
Martin has covered the county commissioner meetings for decades, and is often the only journalist at their meetings. He was unsure how the Facebook live feed would go.
Here’s what he reported to TCOG the next morning:
I stopped by at 6:30, before the 7 p.m. meeting, to speak with Hickman County Mayor Mark Bentley, who maintained his position on how he and other mayors read the (governor’s executive) order and that no citizens would be admitted. I, of course, disagreed with their interpretation, but this is sort of unprecedented.
I asked him if media — me; always the only one — would be allowed to stay for the meeting. He said yes, that he had deemed me “essential” personnel. (However, because my first grandchild is due in less than a month, and my daughter has read me the riot act about being healthy, I did not stay.)
Of the 21 commissioners, 19 attended. The meeting lasted about 50 minutes; the agenda sidestepped reports from about 15 committees, and stuck to what was announced; normally these meetings last two hours.
Aside from the commissioners and the mayor (who is chairman), the county clerk, the emergency operations manager and the mayor’s administrative assistant were the only other people who attended, according to the assistant.
The clerk told me that only one document that was not in the meeting packet was distributed: a set of minutes from one committee. I will get that today.
I watched at home, through a county government link. The administrative assistant managed one hand-held camera, which she was able to place on a small tripod for most of the meeting, enhancing quality. I had an audio glitch for 10 minutes — me at home? county? dunno — but I am getting a CD of the meeting this morning.
As I may have told you, the meeting was relocated, after the initial public notice, from the Justice Center to the Emergency Operations Center. The mayor says this was because “the judge” did not want more than 10 people in the Courtroom. He was not clear whether that comes from the local judge or the Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Given the judge’s order, the mayor expects to follow the same process for the April 27 meeting, though several commissioners during the meeting voiced the disclaimer of “if we meet,” which I guess could be blocked by the governor.
TCOG will continue to monitor how electronic meetings are going around the state. We know this is new for many governing bodies and we are interested in how technology is adopted and deployed.
If you can let us know what your local governing body is doing, including the technology they are using, please let us know by emailing us at email@example.com. We’ll share the information as we can on this website.