Violations of the Open Meetings Act

Any action taken at a meeting in violation of this part shall be void and of no effect; provided, that this nullification of actions taken at such meetings shall not apply to any commitment, otherwise legal, affecting the public debt of the entity concerned.

T.C.A. § 8-44-105

(a)  The circuit courts, chancery courts, and other courts which have equity jurisdiction, have jurisdiction to issue injunctions, impose penalties, and otherwise enforce the purposes of this part upon application of any citizen of this state.
(b)  In each suit brought under this part, the court shall file written findings of fact and conclusions of law and final judgments, which shall also be recorded in the minutes of the body involved.
(c)  The court shall permanently enjoin any person adjudged by it in violation of this part from further violation of this part. Each separate occurrence of such meetings not held in accordance with this part constitutes a separate violation.
(d)  The final judgment or decree in each suit shall state that the court retains jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter for a period of one (1) year from date of entry, and the court shall order the defendants to report in writing semiannually to the court of their compliance with this part.

T.C.A. § 8-44-106

Enforcement of the Open Meetings Act has been left to citizens and the press through lawsuits in local Chancery and Circuit courts. But the public had no way to get authoritative guidance on potential violations of the law outside of a lawsuit until 2008 when the Office of Open Records Counsel was created.

The Counsel’s office has more authority to deal with local public records issues than with the sunshine law, but the legislature made the office responsible for monitoring local open meetings problems, too.

It collects data on inquiries and problems reported by the public and is to “provide educational outreach” on both laws.

The OORC website contains an Inquiry Form (formerly called a “complaint form”) that can be used to report suspected violations. The OORC cannot enforce the law, but it has advised local government officials and the public in resolving some reported problems.

The law says that actions taken at a meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Act “shall be void and of no effect….” and it gives the courts jurisdiction to “issue injunctions, impose penalties, and otherwise enforce the purposes” of the Act if a citizen files a lawsuit.

Knox County open meetings violation led to a jury trial

The most notable voided action came in 2007 when a Chancery Court jury found several Knox County commissioners had deliberated in private before voting to fill eight vacancies on the commission and four vacant countywide offices, including sheriff.

After a two-week trial, the Knox County judge accepted the jury’s verdict and tossed all 12 officials out of office. It was the first such jury trial under the sunshine law. Members of the commission had to testify about their conversations under oath.

In addition to invalidating the action, the court can “permanently enjoin any person adjudged by it in violation” from repeating that illegal conduct. As the Supreme Court has noted, the term “impose penalties” in the law means contempt citations against officials who violate the injunction.

The goal is to protect the public from actions taken in circumvention of the policies and procedures set out in the statute and case law. It is designed to correct those actions, not penalize individual members of governing bodies.  They can only be punished for contempt if they violate an injunction, or ultimately at election time.

Curing a violation

In Neese v. Paris Special School District (1990), the Court of Appeals introduced the idea that a governing body that violates the Open Meetings Act can “cure” that violation by “new and substantial” reconsideration of their actions, essentially doing it over by following the law.

Although the court found the school board deliberated on a rezoning plan at a retreat in violation of the Open Meetings Act, it ruled that the school board’s eventual vote in public was legal.

The court reasoned the actions of the school board after the retreat but before a formal vote fixed the violation. The board scheduled a public meeting, gave adequate notice and then allowed a three-hour public question and answer session on the issue. The court said:

T.C.A. § 8-44-105 provides that “[a]ny action taken at a meeting in violation of this part shall be void and of no effect… .” We do not believe that the legislative intent of this statute was forever to bar a governing body from properly ratifying its decision made in a prior violative manner. However, neither was it the legislative intent to allow such a body to ratify a decision in a subsequent meeting by a perfunctory crystallization of its earlier action. We hold that the purpose of the act is satisfied if the ultimate decision is made in accordance with the Public Meetings Act, and if it is a new and substantial reconsideration of the issues involved, in which the public is afforded ample opportunity to know the facts and to be heard with reference to the matters at issue. 

Tennessee Court of Appeals, Neese v. Paris Special School District (1990)